How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

The Jersey way: too narrow definition of political corruption

In November of this last year, Senator Robert Menendez's 11-week corruption trial ended in hung jury. In January of this year, all charges against him were dismissed. Senator Menendez jubilantly and defiantly declared "Today is Resurrection Day," he said. "To those of you, who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won't forget."

Menendez didn't get off entirely Scot free. He received a four-page "letter of admonition" from the six members Senate Ethics Committee (composed of three Republic and three Democrats). The Committee declared Menendez "knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen without obtaining required Committee approval, and that you failed to publicly disclose certain gifts as required by Senate Rule and federal law. Additionally, while accepting these gifts, you used your position as a member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen's personal and business interests."

The original 14-charge bribery indictment alleged that Menendez received hundreds of thousands of dollars in goodies and campaign contributions in return for doing various favors for his good friend Florida ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen. Specifically, the Justice Department alleged that Menendez helped Melgen get visas for three of his girl friends, lobbied government officials regarding the doctor's Medicare disputes and intervened on Melgen's behalf to help secure a lucrative port-security contract in the Dominican Republic. The majority of the jury bought Menendez's argument that the favors were provide out of friendship not on be basis of implicit or explicit quid quo pro.

Legally the case came down to whether Menendez actions fit the narrow legal definition of "official acts" as required under the federal bribery statutes. Based on a recent Manhattan Appellate Court ruling involving NY State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and a Supreme Court ruling involving Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, the Menendez legal team made the case that the Senator was not engaged in "the formal exercise of government power" in return for the gifts. They argued that consistent with the Supreme Court's ruling the in the McDonnell case, "setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, stand alone, quality as an "official" act."

The hung jury was a victory for Menendez and a major setback for federal prosecutors in what was the Justice Department's first high-profile case since the Supreme Court decision limited its ability to bring such cases.

While Menendez got a pass, Melgen was sentenced to 17 years in prison for stealing millions form Medicare. Melgen was convicted on 67 counts of fraud and found guilty in federal court. According to Parade Magazine, he "persuaded older patients to undergo sometimes painful tests and procedures for phantom illnesses, all to defraud Medicare."

Since the government decided not to retry the case, Senator Menendez's support among party regulars has remained steadfast in spite of the fact that his double-digit led against Republican challenger Robert Hugins nearly evaporated and he performed extremely poorly in a primary against a virtually unknown Democrat (Lisa McCormick who got 38% of the votes cast).

I view political corruption much like pornography - I know it when you see it and apparently so do a substantial portion of Democratic primary voters. I believe the jury got it wrong and the Senate ethics panel got it right in the Menendez case. I find it totally unacceptable for an elected official to accept substantial luxury gifts (19 free flights on private jets and vacations at a villa in the Dominican Republic and at premium hotel in Paris) from anyone, including a friend, and then intervene on behalf of that person officially or unofficially before a federal agency. Menendez should not have accepted any personal gift from Dr. Melgen.

I feel that Senator Menendez didn't report the gifts from Dr. Melgen because was concerned about how they would look. I don't buy that the failure to report the gifts was a simple oversight.

I believe that Senator Menendez was guilty regardless of whether the meetings held or calls made did or did not met the narrow technically definition of an "official act" established recently by the court. That is a fake distinction in my mind. Senators should meet the highest not minimum ethical standards.

The New Jersey Democratic establishment has lost its way when it comes to ethics. I don't get it. Why do our state's Democrats have such low standards for our elected officials that they find it okay for a Senator to take luxuary gifts from a sleazy doctor who defrauded Medicare of $73 million dollars? I guess it's for the same reason that Republican Mike Mulvaney, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, admitted that as a member of Congress he would only meet with lobbyists who contributed to his campaign.

Senator Menendez and Congressmen Mulvaney words and deeds provide clear evidence that the system is rigged in favor of rich and powerful. Likewise, President Trump acknowledged the relationship between money and political power during the campaign when asked about his history of donating to Bill and Hillary Clinton. "I give to everybody," he said. "When you call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me."