Sen. Robert Menendez faces new questions on ties to big donor
A new report that Senator Menendez sponsored a bill that could have helped a major Florida donor's investment in natural gas vehicle conversion rekindles rumors of ethics violations.
More trouble is looming for Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey: According to an Associated Press investigation, the embattled New Jersey Democrat sponsored legislation that, if passed, would have aided one of his biggest donor's investment in a natural gas vehicle conversion company.Skip to next paragraph
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The report, published Monday, stated that Senator Menendez sponsored a bill to give tax credits and grants to truck and heavy vehicle fleets that converted to natural gas. The bill could have benefited Salomon Melgen, the Florida eye doctor whose close relationship with Menendez has spurred a Senate ethics investigation. Dr. Melgen is an investor and member of the board of directors of Gaseous Fuel Systems Corp., which designs, manufactures, and sells products to convert diesel- and gas-fuel vehicles to natural gas.
Menendez’s backing of the natural-gas bill marks another convergence of interest between the politician and a major donor and is a thorn for the senator. But political watchers in New Jersey say the bill sponsorship is one part of a larger clean-energy agenda from the senator, who has a history of supporting environmental causes. As such, it is unlikely this latest allegation represents a conflict of interest, says Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at Montclair State University, who predicts that Menendez will survive the latest storm.
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“I’m still not convinced ... that this kind of behavior reaches to the status where it becomes enormously problematic in voters’ minds,” says Professor Harrison. “I’m not seeing any illegality or conflict of interest here.”
The bill-sponsorship revelation revives the larger issue of the senator’s relationship with Melgen, with recent reports suggesting that Menendez was providing political favors for Melgen in exchange for campaign support.
Menendez used Melgen’s private jet for two personal trips to the Dominican Republic in 2010, flights that were not reimbursed until three years later, when news reports called the senator’s conduct into question.
Menendez also intervened in a Medicare billing dispute between Melgen and federal authorities, as well as a port security contract, allegedly in order to protect the interests of his friend and donor, according to news reports. The allegations are compounded by a $700,000 donation Melgen made to Majority PAC, a "super political-action committee" created to elect Senate Democrats that ultimately made a $582,500 contribution to Menendez’s 2012 reelection campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Menendez has vehemently denied all allegations of impropriety, including any allegations of conflict-of-interest stemming from this latest report. His office did not respond to calls regarding his sponsorship of the natural gas bill.
According to the AP report, Menendez joined Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) as a key backer of the natural gas bill. Soon after, Melgen joined the board of directors of Gaseous Fuel Systems Corp., which makes technology to perform such conversions. Though his investment in the company is confidential under US Securities and Exchange Commission rules, the company required a minimum investment of $51,500, according to the AP.