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Hard to tell, but indictment of this senator might turn out differently

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was recently the subject of a 14-count federal indictment: eight counts of bribery, three counts of honest services fraud, one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act and one count of making false statements. It is important to note that the senator was indicted on corruption charges - not convicted.

Menendez is the first sitting senator to be indicted since Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008. A federal judge dismissed Stevens' conviction in 2009 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Similarly, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted in 1993 and was acquitted when the district attorney refused to present the case against her.

Newly elected Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman was correct when she said, "Like all Americans, Sen. Menendez is entitled to the presumption of innocence and the chance to defend himself."

Before expressing my views on the Menendez indictment, I need to fess up about my suspicions regarding federal charges. On July 23, 2010, I was shocked to read the headline: "Former Bayonne Mayor Joe Doria resigns state post amid massive corruption probe." At the time, Doria's home and office were raided on the same day as 44 others were arrested and charged as part of the Operation Bid Rig roundup.

I knew Joe Doria pretty well and never heard anything to suggest he was involved in any sort of nefarious activities. In a Nov. 2, 2003 New York Times article written by Terry Golway when Doria was about to leave office after he was defeated in a Democratic primary for re-election to the Assembly, he was described by Republicans and Democrats as "a person of unquestionable decency and boundless compassion."

After a two-year "sweeping corruption investigation," The Times of Trenton reported in October 2011, "Joseph Doria ... has quietly been cleared of any wrongdoing. In a rare letter from the U.S. Attorney's Office, federal prosecutors said they have closed their investigation of the matter [and] no charges will be brought by [that] office regarding the circumstances that led to the search."

The Doria fiasco brought back memories of Ray Donovan, who headed a New Jersey construction company and was appointed U.S. Secretary of Labor by Ronald Reagan in 1981. In a highly publicized case in 1987, Donovan was indicted by a grand jury for larceny and fraud in connection with a New York City construction project. Subsequently, Donovan was acquitted of all charges and was quoted as asking, "Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?"

In spite of being skeptical about federal charges, I am troubled by the accusations surrounding Menendez. The senator's intervention before federal agencies on behalf of his close personal friend Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye surgeon, seems beyond what a senator would typically do on behalf of a constituent. (Note that Floridian Melgen is not a constituent.)

The indictment against Menendez charges that he accepted close to $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen between 2006 and 2013 in exchange for intervening with the government on Melgen's behalf in a Medicare payment dispute; a port security deal in the Dominican Republic; and visa applications for Melgen's girlfriends. The 68-page indictment is broad in scope but specific in terms of detailing extensive efforts by Menendez and his staff to resolve problems and remove barriers for Melgen at the highest regulatory levels. The indictment raises lots of questions regarding a very long list of extravagant personal benefits Menendez accepted and never disclosed on his campaign finance reports.

In the end, the case will boil down to whether Menendez's actions on behalf of Melgen were something he would do as part of his normal Senate duties, or whether they were political favors provided to someone who had provided him luxury vacations, golf outings, campaign donations and expensive flights. The essence of the government's case is that Menendez traded gifts for favors. The paper trail and timing suggest a possible link between the actions of the senator and his staff and some of Melgen's gifts.

It appears Melgen clearly received concierge service from Menendez. The question comes down to whether there was a direct quid pro quo. If there was, that is not how the system is supposed to work.

If it is proven that Menendez, regardless of his contention that "prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption," intervened and pulled strings on behalf of his friend in exchange for lavish gifts and contributions, then he is guilty of unethical behavior and did violate the trust of the public who elected him.

I have no idea whether Menendez will be convicted. It does appear he operated in an inappropriate manner. He should not have taken private jet flights and stayed at five-star hotels in Paris on a donor's nickel.

New Jersey voters and our elected officials need to disabuse themselves of the notion that it is OK to accept money or other gifts and in return use the power and prestige of public office for their donors' benefit.