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High court has made it harder to punish deeds like Menendez’s

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 U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez waits to speak outside federal court, Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Newark, N.J. Menendez, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was indicted on corruption charges, accused of using his office to improperly benefit an eye doctor and political donor. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez waits to speak outside federal court, Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Newark, N.J. Menendez, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was indicted on corruption charges, accused of using his office to improperly benefit an eye doctor and political donor. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

If what New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez is charged with doing wasn’t illegal, it was at least unethical and corrupt.

Menendez pleaded not guilty on Thursday to federal bribery charges.

The Democratic senator, according to prosecutors, burned up the Senate’ s phone lies and email in-boxes trying help Dr. Salomon Melgen, a physician pal of his, resolve favorably a Medicare billing dispute.

Melgen, the feds say, treated the senator to a number of nice vacations and golf outings, while also donating more than $600,000 to a super PAC whose mission in life was to elect Democratic senators.

The defense offered by Menendez’ lawyer was a forehead-slapper: All this was just fine ethically because Menendez and Melgen were really pals. “This was a real friendship, and not a corrupt relationship,” the legal eagle intoned.

Excuse me, where in the oath of office does it say it’s just hunky-dory to give someone special treatment unavailable to normal taxpayers as long as he is a golfing buddy? That line of defense is utter nonsense.

None of this is to suggest that Menendez will ever be convicted of anything.

This is where a rich irony arises. Republican partisans have had a grand old time trumpeting this latest example of Democratic corruption. OK, fine. But here’s the twist: The chances of Menendez ever being found guilty have been substantially lessened by a series of rulings by the very U.S. Supreme Court majority whose deeds conservatives so often applaud.

In the Citizens United case and other related rulings, the court majority has given wide latitude to political giving done out of corporate self-interest, while sticking to an extremely narrow definition of what constitutes official corruption — essentially only direct gifts (AKA bribes) given in return for a clear quid pro quo of governmental action.

In the Menendez case, some direct personal gifts are allegedly involved, so, OK, maybe the feds can make a case – even though they’ve failed to close the deal in some some similar prosecutions against lawmakers.

The key corruption in the Mendendez case stems from the doctor’s largesse to the Senate Majority PAC, one of those political action committees that have been given to much room to maneuver by recent court decisions. Other members of Congress or administration officials wouldn’t worry too much about the good doctor’s problems if he were only Menendez’ golf buddy.

Not, it’s the 600 grand he donated to the Senate PAC that made him a VIP to Democrats.

That’s the pathway by which big money routinely distorts and corrupts the conduct of government. But five justices on our highest court are willfully blind to this reality — and they’ve given senators like Menendez a potential out to excuse behavior that’s blatantly unethical.

This Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., I’ll be moderating a civic dialogue event that will touch on many of the issues of campaign finance and corruption involved in the Mendendez case. It’s the Bernard Wolfman Civic Discourse Forum at Beth Sholom Congregation, 8213 Old York Road, Elkins Park, Pa.   Joining me in the dialogue will be Craig Holman of Public Citizen and John Samples of the Cato Institute.  Admission is free but advance registration is requested. It can be done here.

 

 

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