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Menendez defiant in face of federal corruption indictment

On May 13, Senator Bob Menendez held his annual Meadowland campaign fundraiser which took in more than $600,000 for his 2018 reelection campaign.  According to his advisor Michael Soliman, "The breath and depth of support for Senator Menendez ... demonstrates his strength today and for years to come as he continues to fight for the people of New Jersey." 

New Jersey's upcoming governor's race, Menendez's strong supporter of Israel and his close ties to the Clintons, no doubt help with ticket sales.  Senator Menendez is a fundraising powerhouse as witnessed by the more than $3 million he has raised to defray the legal expenses stemming from his April 2014 indictment.  

Since Menendez's indictment, Democrats elected officials and party bigwigs from across the state have rallied to his side citing the principle that all defendants are entitled to the presumption of innocence and a chance to defend themselves. 

According to the detailed 68-page indictment, from January 2006 through January of 2011, over a period of seven years Menendez took in almost $1 million in luxury gifts and campaign donations from Dr. Salomon Melgen.  Prosecutors allege that in exchange for the doctor's largesse, Menendez interceded in a multi-million-dollar dispute Melgen was having with Medicare and on a stalled port cargo screening contract Melgen had with the Dominican Republic and that he and his staff lobbied U.S. State Department officials to win visa approvals for several of Melgen's girlfriends. 

Melgen was also indicted in New Jersey for providing Menendez with flights on private jets, use of his Dominican Republic villa at the exclusive Casa de Campo resort, and a $5,000 three-night stay at Paris' five-star Park Hyatt Paris Vendome that  Melgen used almost 650,000 American Express points to pay for. In addition to $750,000 in campaign donations, Melgen gave Menendez $40,000 for his legal defense fund the government charged. Melgen was also indicted in Florida on charges of Medicare fraud.

The indictment describe a conspiracy in which Menendez and Melgen committed  the crimes of bribery and honest services fraud in which Menendez receives  various things of value from Melgen in exchange Menendez performing a number of official acts on Melgen's behalf.  The indictment argues that Menendez violated the Travel Act that prohibits foreign travel with the intent to further certain criminal activities when he asked Melgen to use his American Express points to pay for Menendez's room valued at nearly $5,000.  The indictment further sets forth various different acts of bribery, honest services wire fraud and a failure to accurately report as required under the Ethics in Government Act all of the gifts that Menendez received from Melgen over the years.

The case is really not about what happened.  There is really not a dispute as to whether Menendez received various goodies and that he intervened on Melgen behalf on numerous occasions – that is not in dispute.  Menendez will contend that the gifts were given to him out of friendship, not as part of a corrupt relationship.  There was no quid pro quo.   A twenty year friendship was the reason that Melgen was so generous – there was never and understanding that something was being done to receive any sort of benefit.  There is, no doubt, that Menendez explanation will rely heavily on a "friendship defense," however, the presence of a long-time friendship between the parties does not negate any possibility of corruption.  

I have my doubts as to whether the "friendship" will fly in this case.  For a number of years, Menendez failed to disclose gifts provided by Melgen and in some cases appears to have taken steps to hide from his own staff things he was doing on Melgen's behalf.  Menendez actions could be seen as attempt to conceal what he was doing for Melgen.  If Watergate has taught us anything it is that the consequences of the cover-up is often worse than what originally transpired. 

Further, the nature of the gifts received were really over-the-top – lavish hotel rooms (Menendez e-mailed Melgen and asked for a room with "limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower, [and] views of courtyard or streets") charter jet travel etc.  Would you really ask a friend to use 650,000 American Express award points to book a room for you with an elaborate set of specifications?   It sounds more like a business arrangement rather than a friendship to me.

A jury could be troubled by the nature of the dispute that Melgen had with HHS and that Senator Menendez intervene on.  It revolved around Melgen's medical practice using vials of medicine designed to treat only a single patient to treat two or three patients.  He then was billing Medicare as if a new vial was purchased for each patient.  It sounds potentially unsafe and very unethical ($9 million in over-billing).  

If I was on jury I'd be very unsympathetic to a N.J. senator intervening with a government official on behalf of Florida eye doctor who was potentially endangering patients and outrageously overcharging Medicare?  At best, I see what Sen. Menendez did as the latest in a long egregious history of ethical misconduct among Democratic elected officials in our state.