These should be good times for Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.
New Jersey voters re-elected him last fall in a landslide, and he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee a few weeks ago. But along the way, Menendez has come under scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee and perhaps other government investigators – and certainly the media — for his connections to a long-time friend and generous campaign donor.
In July, Menendez called two Obama administration officials to his Foreign Relations subcommittee to explain to him why Washington wasn’t sticking up for U.S. business interests in Latin America.
Menendez cited several examples, including a couple involving the Dominican Republic. He said one company, which he didn’t name, had American investors and a contract with the Dominican Republic government to provide port security. But officials there wanted to start their own port security operation and “they don’t want to live by that contract either,” the senator said.
He declared that the U.S. needed to side with the company, not the government. “You know what? If those countries can get away with that, they will,” Menendez said.
What he didn’t say was that the company was partly owned by a wealthy Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen.
Here’s how Menendez described Melgen during a recent press conference in New Jersey: “Someone who I’ve known for 20 years, someone who has been a friend, someone who has been a supporter.”
Melgen in fact has been a longtime and generous supporter. Last year, his medical practice gave $700,000 to a Democratic superPAC, which spent nearly $600,000 to help Menendez in the November election.
Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group that has investigated Menendez. He says the senator knew what he was doing.
“[Menendez] knew he was carrying water for one specific donor at the very time the donor was writing very large checks to benefit the senator,” Boehm says.
And there are other connections. Twice since 2009, Menendez went to Medicare on Melgen’s behalf after health care officials alleged the doctor had overbilled by nearly $9 million. Last month, agents from the FBI and Health and Human Services raided Melgen’s office in West Palm Beach, Fla., hauling away boxes of documents.
Menendez has also admitted that he failed to disclose two trips on Melgen’s private jet — flights to a Dominican Republic resort community where Melgen has a house.
“I welcome any review, but I have no intention of having the smears try to deviate me from the work that I have been doing and will continue to do,” Menendez told reporters in New Jersey.
Menendez is one of the least wealthy members of the Senate, with a net worth in 2012 that was as little as $200,000, according to his Senate disclosure. He reimbursed Melgen last month for the flights — $58,500 in all.
The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into the case.
At the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Melanie Sloan says the subject of doing favors for donors is a touchy one. “I think many members will be hesitant to take Menendez on for that,” she says, “given that they can’t afford to have their own campaign donations examined too closely.”
There’s also another complication: because the port-security matter was discussed at that subcommittee hearing, it could be considered an official debate — and constitutionally off limits for prosecutors.
Menendez has come under scrutiny before but has never been charged. He even had a reputation as the clean guy in one of the state’s most corrupt county organizations.
“In fact, he testified in his younger days in a bulletproof vest in a federal corruption trial against his mentor,” says Tom Moran, a columnist with The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.
And a poll released last weekshowed that so far, none of these new allegations seems to matter much to New Jersey voters.