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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.

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Ultimately, the bill didn’t get enough votes to make it out of the Senate. However, while it was under consideration, a consultant for Gaseous Fuel Systems spent $220,000 lobbying Menendez and other congressional officials, according to interviews and Senate records as reported by the AP. 

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“There is no evidence that Menendez offered direct help or intervened on behalf of the company or Melgen,” the AP said in its report. “Instead, the connection between the two men’s interests in natural gas is the latest example of the close symmetry between the senator … and his millionaire backer.”

Evidence of “close symmetry” in this latest development, say analysts, is not enough to topple Menendez.

“Menendez has been involved in clean-energy technology for a long time,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “In light of Melgen's apparently limited and distant role in GFS, I think it is more of a coincidence than anything more sinister. I think it is as likely that Menendez got Melgen interested in converting truck fleets to natural gas as it was the other way around.”

Other clean-energy initiatives the senator has supported include co-sponsoring legislation aimed at jump-starting offshore wind energy, extending solar energy tax credits, and creating block grants to spur green-energy projects.

Menendez recently reintroduced the Repeal Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act and Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act, legislation he originally introduced in the 112th Congress to end tax subsidies for the “Big 5” oil companies.

“It isn’t that this came out of the blue, it’s part of a larger cohesive agenda ... to deal with energy issues the country is facing,” says Harrison of Montclair State University. “His record is an accurate reflection of his policy concerns, and this is one part of that.”

And though the AP report singled out Menendez, the senator isn’t alone in supporting the natural gas bill – or in sharing a passion with supporters for similar causes. In fact, the House version of the natural gas legislation had 181 co-sponsors.

The natural gas industry spends hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying members of Congress, including Menendez and his staff. “They are not alone in being lobbied,” says Harrison.

Menendez’s ethics controversy has had an impact on his poll numbers, and this latest development may further damage the senator’s image.

A Quinnipiac University poll found Menendez’s approval ratings plummeted 15 percentage points between January and February, as news reports emerged about his relationship with Melgen. His approval rating dropped form 51 percent in mid-January to 36 percent in mid-February. The same poll found only 28 percent of New Jersey voters said the senator was “honest and trustworthy.” 

But Menendez does not face voters again until 2018.

“I don’t think these microbial issues that deal with campaign finance and sponsorship of legislation are enough to make a difference in most voter's minds in this state,” says Harrison.


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