For a few weeks, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, has had a federal indictment hanging over him. The Garden State’s senior senator seems to be conducting business as usual, even if the corruption allegations are following him like a dark storm cloud.
The Pentagon is probably the only building in the country where seniority matters more than here at the Capitol. That’s why, at a recent press conference, Menendez was the first of four senators to speak on legislation that would ban oil and gas drilling off the East Coast shore.
“I want to thank my colleagues who are here with me today to basically tell ‘Big Oil’ that America’s coastline is not for sale. Not now, and not ever,” declared Menendez.
Federal prosecutors aren’t worried about Menendez selling the state’s coastline; they’re accusing him of selling his Senate seat. The federal indictment alleges he exchanged favors from his perch at the Capitol for nearly $1 million in political donations and personal gifts, including free stays at a lavish Parisian hotel and a resort in the Dominican Republic.
Mendez has pleaded not guilty; to save his party some embarrassment, though, he stepped down as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, replaced Menendez and has taken over as the lead Democratic negotiator on issues such as nuclear talks with Iran. Cardin has declined to discuss the allegations against Menendez.
“I wouldn’t comment on that. I said — I’ve been publicly saying — I hope his position resolves quickly. I did not want to become ranking member [of the committee] this way,” Cardin said.
While senators don’t want to discuss the case pending against Menendez, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, says he’s handling things well.
“Sen. Menendez has been very positive about trying to make that as without tension as possible,” said Kaine. “I really give him huge kudos for doing that: picking any tension out of it. And we are very close as a committee on the Democratic side, and we’re just keeping on rolling. “
A dose of Chicago politics?
At least one Republican is coming to aid Menendez: Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois. He argues the president (who comes from the same state) is exacting revenge on Menendez because he was using his position on the Foreign Affairs Committee to undermine the administration’s nuclear talks with Iran.
“I worry that in Chicago they play a kind of politics just to destroy and bury our enemies,” Kirk accused. “And this is kind of Chicago politics with Bob.”
Kirk doesn’t have evidence, but he says if you think New Jersey politics are rough, just come to Chicago where the president was groomed.
“You know, the case of what Justice Department people come to the president and say, ‘Hey, we were thinking about nailing Menendez to the wall.’ I think the president probably says, ‘Yeah, go for it.'”
That’s a farfetched conspiracy, according to many observers — even allies of Menendez, including U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey.
“Don’t forget this thing [accusations against Menendez] started a long time before we started debating Iran and the context now, so I don’t think they had anything to do with it whatsoever,” he said.
While Pascrell brushes aside conspiracies involving his friend, he defends Menendez against charges of taking bribes.
“A lot of this is superficial. He had problems when he ran last time and, in the middle of the campaign, they brought charges out against him, which was unethical, in my mind, and he came out of that all right,” Pascrell said. “And I just have no reason to believe that he won’t come out of this OK. And then, let the justice prevail.”
Menendez is basically accused of taking gifts in exchange for using his office to help Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen win a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute, along with helping him secure visas for Melgen’s visiting girlfriends.
Noah Bookbinder, with the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it’s hard to see this case from the senator’s perspective.
“Even for members [who are] not generally receiving these kinds of lavish jets from their personal friends and they’re not — well maybe they’re intervening here and there to help out constituents and perhaps sometimes friends — this level of intervention seems way out of the norm,” Bookbinder said.
Watching and waiting
Back in the Capitol, everyone is watching and waiting.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, serves on the committee Menendez used to chair.
“I think it’s important to let the legal system play out,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed working with Bob on a lot of issues and, so it’s very unfortunate. It’s always difficult when something’s happening to a friend.”
Menendez is one of just 12 senators in history to be indicted. One of them, Harrison Williams, was also from New Jersey. After being found guilty of bribery and corruption in 1981 as part of the Abscam scandal, Williams resigned from the Senate before the his colleagues could vote to kick him out.
It was just about then that Menendez was starting his career, wearing a bulletproof vest and testifying in the corruption trial of his mentor, Union City Mayor William Musto.
Despite the cloud, Menendez has vowed he will be vindicated and remembered for fighting corruption, not for taking bribes.