Pressure builds on Sen. Robert Menendez: Is it enough to topple him?
The New Jersey senator is accused of political favors, bribery, and prostitution. But those charges are difficult to prove, and experts say Menendez has the popularity to ride out the political storm.
New York — Even as pressure on New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez (D) continues to mount over allegations of political favors, bribery, and prostitution, political analysts suggest the controversy, at this point, is unlikely to end the stalwart senator's 40-year political career.
Over the weekend, calls for Senator Menendez to resign his post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gained momentum, with a New York Times editorial pressing him “to relinquish his leadership role.” The Senate Ethics Committee is currently investigating allegations of his misconduct.
But with little public outcry against Menendez in his home state or among his Senate colleagues – and with allegations of political favors hard to prove – Menendez could survive if further allegations do not emerge.
“If what we know right now is all there is, I don’t think this is career ending," says Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., noting that Menedez was just reelected in November. "He has five years and ten months before re-election. That’s a really long time to rehabilitate your image.”
Under scrutiny is Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a wealthy West Palm Beach eye doctor and Democratic contributor. Recent reports have suggested Menendez was providing political favors for Mr. Melgen in exchange for campaign support.
• Suspicion was first cast on Menendez after reports surfaced that the senator took two free round-trip flights aboard Melgen’s private jet for personal vacations at a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic in 2010. After news of the trips became widely known, Menendez acknowledged that he failed to report the trips – per Senate rules – and reimbursed Melgan $58,500 for the lift – almost three years later. (Some news organizations, including the conservative Daily Caller, have made allegations – all unconfirmed – that the senator hired prostitutes during those trips. Menendez has vehemently denied those allegations.)
• The Washington Post reported Feb. 6 that Menendez questioned top federal health-care officials, in 2009 and 2012, about their finding that Melgen had overbilled the government $8.9 million in Medicare claims. Days later, reported New Jersey’s Star-Ledger, Melgen donated $30,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Menendez then chaired. (FBI agents and Medicare Fraud units have since raided Melgen’s eye clinic in Florida.)
• The other major complaint involves allegations, first elaborated Feb. 10 in the New York Times, that Menendez tried to prevent the US from donating port security equipment to the Dominican Republic in order to protect the business interests of his friend.
• According to the Times, Menendez discouraged the Department of Homeland Security from donating the equipment because it would “undermine efforts by a private company,” with connections to Melgen, to protect the contract, worth as much as $500 million over 20 years.
• Further compounding the matter is a hefty $700,000 donation Melgen made to Majority PAC, a Super PAC created to elect Senate Democrats that ultimately made a $582,500 contribution to Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“Probably the most significant aspect of the allegations that have been made centers around the misuse of authority or undue influence,” says Dr. Harrison. “[Alleged favors were] not done on behalf of constituents … but on behalf of a campaign donor from another state. That’s what’s raising red flags in Washington.”
Adds Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., the allegations “revolve around one single person, a big contributor. Interventions on behalf of a contributor give the implication of a quid pro quo.”
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing. He called failure to disclose the trips an oversight caused by a hectic schedule and said allegations of prostitution were unsubstantiated “smears” by the right-wing media.
As for the reported favors, Menendez told Telemundo in an interview that aired Feb. 10, “No one has bought me, No. 1. No one. Ever. In the 20 years I’ve been in Congress, never has it been suggested that that could even be possible. Never in 40 years of public life. So I’m not going to reach this moment in my life to make that a possibility.”
That influential backing, coupled with the sheer difficulty of proving the allegations, are likely to work in Menendez's favor, analysts say.
“Unless there is some documented evidence to the fact that, ‘If you do this, I’ll give you this,’ the usual defense is that politicians do this all the time,” says Dr. Baker. Linking Melgen’s contributions to favors from Menendez, he adds, is a tough task.
The senator has also enjoyed wide support from other Senate Democrats, many of whom Menendez has helped over his 40-year career, says Harrison.
“Menendez ingratiated himself to many Democrats in the Senate in his role as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. A lot of folks owe their election to his fundraising prowess,” she says. “People are indebted to him, they know him, they like him, he has helped them – there’s a bit of loyalty toward him.”
Menendez’s constituents have been similarly tolerant.
“I don’t see a whole lot of people in New Jersey getting really riled up about this,” says Harrison. “You’re not seeing the kind of passionate outrage that you might anticipate.”
That’s due in part, she says, to a cynical populace used to political scandal and a relatively liberal culture with regards to social morays. “I don’t think that in the state of New Jersey this is a political death sentence,” Harrison says.
Indeed, the senator has built a 40-year career in the state and was re-elected to a second term in the Senate this past fall with 58.5 percent of the vote. Still, he does risk succumbing to the same fate as another New Jersey Senator, Robert Torricelli, who decided not to run for re-election in 2002 amid allegations that he helped a major donor in exchange for gifts and contributions.
But it’s an unlikely fate, according to both Harrison and Baker.
“Barring some new revelations … I think his chances for survival are good,” says Baker.