Editorials on the Robert Menéndez indictment

MENENDEZ: RESIGN AND SPARE US THE DRAMA 

Editorial by the Star-Ledger

It is hard to fathom the lack of judgment: Why would he even dance close to this line?

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez now begins a fight for his political life that could last for years. New Jersey would be better off if he would resign and conduct that battle on his own time.

The state needs a respected senator who is focused on his job, not a tarnished defendant who spends his days fending off credible charges of corruption and raising money for his legal defense.

Menendez vows that he will not resign. He argues that he should be regarded as innocent until he is proven guilty, a claim that cannot be taken lightly. But that is the standard for imposing criminal sanctions like jail and fines. For senators, the bar should be much higher.

Begin with this fact: Menendez admits that he took gifts from a wealthy Florida donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, who twice flew the senator on a private jet to his home in a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic in 2010. Menendez also concedes that he kept those gifts secret, in violation of Senate ethics rules. He reimbursed Melgen only after he was caught.

That alone is a serious offense, and is not in dispute. It is at least as bad as the behavior that drove U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1st Dist.) from office in 2014 after he used campaign funds to finance trips to Scotland and Los Angeles. Andrews, who denies breaking ethics rules, at least had the decency to resign rather than put his constituents at a disadvantage while he fought for personal redemption.

The indictment charges that Menendez solicited gifts in return for specific officials actions. Menendez took private flights many more times than previously known, along with first-class commercial flights, a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris, and tens of thousands of dollars for his legal defense fund.

Menendez’s supporters argue that prosecutors should not have the power to remove an office-holder chosen by voters. Again, that’s a serious argument. But again it’s unconvincing.

For one, voters would not have chosen Menendez if they knew this was in store. The Star-Ledger endorsed him for re-election in 2012, and like many voters, we have buyer’s remorse. We did not have all the facts.

According to prosecutors, Menendez not only took these gifts, but returned the favor by using his office to benefit Melgen financially. He pressed Medicare regulators to change reimbursement policies in ways that would bring millions of dollars to Melgen, an eye surgeon. He asked the State Department to press the Dominican Republic over a port security deal Melgen had invested in, and he influenced the visa proceedings for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, according to prosecutors.

The challenge for prosecutors will be to prove the connection between Melgen’s gifts and Menendez’s favors. That would make his behavior criminal. That it was sleazy to accept these secret gifts in the first place is beyond dispute, even if the two are friends.

Yes, it is unnerving to effectively hand prosecutors the power to remove elected officials, especially when prosecutors have political ambitions themselves. And the Department of Justice in capable of making enormous mistakes, as when the second Bush administration famously botched the case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska by withholding evidence from his defense attorneys.

But Attorney General Eric Holder has rebuilt the department’s corruption unit, which has since scored several big wins, including the recent conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Menendez is among those who voted to confirm Holder, a show of confidence in his judgment.

The senator’s legal team is trying to short-circuit this investigation by citing the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause, which prohibits the Department of Justice from interfering with lawmaking. That sounds desperate. Lawmaking is one thing; doing favors in return for big donations is something else.

Regardless of the outcome, it is hard to fathom Menendez’s lack of judgment after a long career in a state that has been cursed by so much corruption. Why would he even dance close to this line?

He has done good service to this state over the past 40 years. But that is now tarnished forever. His decision to stay and fight only compounds the damage.

*****

STEP DOWN, SENATOR MENENDEZ

Editorial by The New York Times

For high-profile politicians who are indicted by federal prosecutors, there’s something akin to stages of grief. First comes shock, then anger, defiance and, sometimes, after juries convict and judges are ready to impose a sentence, a bit of contrition.

Having been on notice for months that his mutually beneficial friendship with a wealthy Florida doctor was the subject of a corruption probe, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey blew past the state of shock on Wednesday, after authorities unveiled a 68-page indictment.

“For nearly three years I’ve lived under a Justice Department cloud and today I am outraged that this cloud has not been lifted,” an indignant Mr. Menendez told a crowd of supporters in Newark.

Outrage is fitting in this case — for anyone who reads the indictment. It meticulously documents a brazen pattern of gifts and favors exchanged by Mr. Menendez, one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington, and Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Dominican-born eye surgeon who invested heavily in Mr. Menendez’s political career and was never shy about calling in favors.

Mr. Menendez argues that the back-scratching was not criminal, but rather what good friends are supposed to do for each other. He’s certainly entitled to make that case to a jury. Considering the breadth and nature of the allegations, though, it’s hard to imagine that he will have enough time to adequately represent his constituents while he braces for a legal fight that could drag on for years.

The most damning portion of the indictment chronicles Mr. Menendez’s advocacy on behalf of Dr. Melgen when federal officials, in 2009, found that he had overbilled Medicare by nearly $9 million. “We have a bit of a situation with Senator Menendez, who is advocating on behalf of a physician friend of his in Florida,” an official at the Department of Health and Human Services warned a colleague who was designated to take the senator’s call.

Senate staff members routinely work on behalf of constituents, but there appears to be no reasonable explanation for the hours of work they put into a billing dispute on behalf of a doctor from another state. Mr. Menendez took the matter up directly with the secretary of health and human services during a meeting in August 2012. Two months later, Dr. Melgen donated $300,000 to a political action committee that was working to get Mr. Menendez re-elected. During that period, Mr. Menendez traveled to the Dominican Republic aboard Dr. Melgen’s private jet, one of a series of such trips he failed to disclose.

Also in 2012, Mr. Menendez’s staff contacted State Department officials to protect Dr. Melgen’s interest in a cargo screening company in the Dominican Republic, asking them to pressure the Dominican government into honoring a contract for port security. At that time, Dr. Melgen, who was also indicted in the case, was making donations to a New Jersey Democratic committee and to Mr. Menendez’s legal defense fund.

One of the more salacious parts of the complaint summarizes Mr. Menendez’s efforts on behalf of Dr. Melgen’s young foreign girlfriends who needed visas to spend time with him in the United States. In one case, the senator wrote a letter to the State Department to vouch for his friend’s “good friend.”

In Mr. Menendez’s rule book, friends also let friends use their credit card rewards program points. In 2010, he instructed Dr. Melgen to book him a suite in a Paris hotel with a “king bed, work area with Internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower.” He wrote helpfully in an email: “You call American Express Rewards and they will book it for you. It would need to be in my name.”

Mr. Menendez is evidently not in a hurry to get to the stage of contrition, having warned on Wednesday that he’s “not going anywhere.” He would be doing a disservice to New Jersey by clinging to power as a disgraced politician. His colleagues in the Senate should demand that he step aside.

Gov. Chris Christie would have a range of options to fill the seat temporarily until a new election could be held. If that happens, Mr. Christie should find the speediest way possible to let voters choose a successor who, ideally, would come into office without questionable friends.

*****

DID SENATOR MENENDEZ CROSS THE LINE?

Editorial by The Washington Post

WHAT ARE friends for? Well, Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) wealthy ophthalmologist friend Salomon Melgen provided him with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of private jet flights, hotel stays and campaign contributions between 2006 and 2013, according to a Justice Department indictment. Meanwhile, Mr. Menendez allegedly intervened with executive branch officials to help Dr. Melgen maintain a lucrative contract with the Dominican Republic, fend off charges that he overbilled Medicare by nearly $9 million and secure tourist visas for three different girlfriends from three different U.S. embassies abroad. Mr. Menendez declares himself “angry” that federal authorities have confused this two-man mutual admiration society with corruption, much less the specific crime, bribery, of which they accuse him.

The senator’s indignation is misplaced, to put it mildly. To be sure, the charge that sparked a federal investigation — an inflammatory claim, since recanted, that Dr. Melgen procured underage prostitutes for Mr. Menendez in the Dominican Republic — did not withstand scrutiny and forms no part of the indictment. Nevertheless, the indictment recounts more unreported trips aboard Dr. Melgen’s plane, in addition to the two that the senator has acknowledged (and belatedly paid for). That alleged violation of black-letter ethics rules alone is a glaringly unseemly circumstance, for which Mr. Menendez will be hard-pressed to offer an innocent explanation.

What’s more, the senator’s apparent “friendship” defense raises as many questions as it answers. Specifically, at what point does being a pal override an elected official’s duty to represent the public interest — as opposed to the allegedly venal interests of a private citizen who isn’t even his constituent? Did Mr. Menendez see nothing improper with, according to the indictment, leaning on U.S. consular officials to facilitate Dr. Melgen’s affairs? After charges against his chum of Medicare overbilling had survived repeated rounds of scrutiny, did it never occur to Mr. Menendez that they might be, you know, well-founded? Why was he not more troubled by allegations that improperly reusing a certain eye solution not only double-billed taxpayers but also put patients’ health at risk?

The Justice Department faces challenges of its own in convicting the senator of bribery. This indictment, it should be remembered, emerges from a public integrity section whose last case against a sitting senator was the badly flawed prosecution of the late Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The indictment suggests that Dr. Melgen’s largesse was meant to buy Mr. Menendez’s official acts “as opportunities arose” — a sort of retainer. In that sense, it is similar to the case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, who was convicted. However, Mr. McDonnell and his alleged benefactor, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., were not longtime friends, as Dr. Melgen and Mr. Menendez were. A jury might view their transactions more indulgently, absent an explicit quid pro quo. The Menendez indictment depicts greed, log-rolling and cronyism. Alas, that’s nothing new in Washington; the burden is on the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, in this case, Mr. Menendez and his friend crossed the line that separates sleazy behavior from actual crime.

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