United States Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, arrived more than 30 minutes late to his own pre-indictment press conference on Friday evening in Newark. The Senator seemed angry. His permanently squinted eyes narrowed. As he spoke, he pushed himself away from the lectern and threw his hands out for emphasis.
“Let me be very clear, very clear,” he snapped. “I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law.”
Earlier in the day, CNN broke the news that the Justice Department would conclude a two-year investigation of Menendez by indicting him on corruption charges relating to his relationship with Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist who has donated handsomely to the senator’s campaigns since 1992, when Menendez first ran for Congress.
Such an outcome for any politician from Hudson county may not surprise many; it's known for producing a mayor (Frank Hague of Jersey City, who served from 1917-1947) whose desk was outfitted with a special drawer that allowed his visitors to discreetly deposit cash. And Menendez has been cheerfully cheating political death since 2006, when he was first investigated by Chris Christie, then the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, in a probe that many Democrats considered a politically motivated inquiry.
Even the current scandal seemed as though it might blow over. The first rumblings of an improper relationship between Menendez and Melgen began with a phony report on a partisan website.
In 2012, as Menendez was running for re-election, The Daily Caller, a two-year-old conservative publication struggling for relevance, published a seemingly endless series of stories—more than 45 in all—claiming that Menendez and Melgen hosted “sex parties” in the Dominican Republic where they were entertained by prostitutes as young as sixteen years old. Menendez, the publication claimed, preferred “the newest and youngest girls.”
That story proved to be false (not merely false, but possibly-planted-by-the-Cuban-government-false ), but within it there contained some truth: Menendez and Melgen’s friendship was unseemly.
Melgen, 60, is a tan, doughy man with expressive eyebrows and a dust bunny of dark gray hair atop his head.
When Menendez’s mother died in 2009, The New York Times reported, Melgen “rushed to the senator’s side.”
Melgen frequently hosted Menendez on his private jet, including on trips to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen has a mansion. (When the subject of the private plane trips became a problem for Menendez, he dismissed his failure to disclose them as a “mistake,” and personally wrote Melgen a check for $58,500.)
Melgen also contributed substantially to Menendez’s political campaigns. In 2012, according to The New York Times, Melgen donated $700,000 to Majority PAC, “a super PAC run by former aides” of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The PAC then proceeded to funnel $600,000 into the coffers of Menendez’s re-election campaign.
None of this would have been much of a problem for Menendez had he not reciprocated Melgen’s kindness by allegedly using his clout as a senator to repay him with legislative favors, two of which in particular are now the likely focus of the imminent criminal charges.
When it was revealed that Melgen received the third-highest Medicare reimbursements of any doctor in the country in 2012, $21 million, some wondered whether he was trying to pull one over on the government.
On Melgen’s behalf, according to a report last week from The New Jersey Law Journal, Menendez and Reid sat down with then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to discuss the matter. Additionally, Menendez met with other officials to discuss Melgen’s billing disputes.
And then there is the issue of Melgen’s business dealings in the Dominican Republic.
In addition to being an eye doctor, Melgen had a side business that dabbled in security technology, and he obtained a contract with the Dominican government to provide port screening equipment. When that deal was jeopardized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which wanted to donate its own equipment, Menendez apparently intervened. In a Senate subcommittee hearing in 2012, the senator said that allowing the Dominican government to break the deal with Melgen—though he did not mention him or his company by name—“puts American companies at a tremendous disadvantage.”
The federal investigation into Menendez and Melgen’s transactional friendship began shortly thereafter.
In March 2013, The Washington Post reported that Menendez and Melgen’s relationship was under scrutiny by a grand jury in Miami which had “issued subpoenas for Melgen’s business and financial records,” and that federal agents had been questioning witnesses, though they had not, at that point, contacted Menendez himself.
In October 2013, Melgen’s West Palm Beach office was raided by the feds, who piled boxes of his documents into their minivans while reporters snapped pictures.
The investigation has since continued quietly under the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, the unit assembled in the aftermath of Watergate and which is responsible for well-known investigations from Abscam to the recent criminal charges against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife.
The involvement of the Public Integrity Section, which has a reputation for scrupulous non-partisanship, seems to disprove the theory that the case against Menendez, who until January was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is an act of political retribution by the Obama administration to punish him for opposing the president’s policies of engagement with Cuba and Iran.
Furthermore, if the Obama Justice Department is playing politics with this case, it’s doing a terrible job. Were Menendez to vacate his office, there is no obvious successor. The most prominent New Jersey Democrat, Cory Booker, is already in the Senate. Other prominent Democrats who have expressed interest in the Senate, like Rep. Frank Pallone or former Rep. Rush Holt, do not match Menendez in fundraising prowess or star power.
New Jersey is a deep blue state and it’s safe to assume that whoever succeeds Menendez will be a Democrat. The last time there was an open Senate seat was 2013, when 89 year-old Senator Frank Lautenberg died. Gov. Christie appointed as an interim Senator Jeffrey Chiesa, a Republican who didn’t even bother to run in the special election to serve a full term. And Christie himself, despite his presidential prospects looking grim at the moment, has repeatedly claimed he has no interest in the Senate—a fate which he has said ranks below suicide.
Menendez would like you to believe that he is not concerned about any of this. From behind the lectern on Friday evening, he confidently proclaimed, “I am not going anywhere.”
Except far away from the press, from whom he took no questions.