Allegations cloud Menendez’s moment

Posted: February 01, 2013

WASHINGTON - At one of New Jersey's premier political events here Thursday night, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) sat on a dais in front of a ballroom filled with lobbyists, public officials, and business leaders.

He even received praise at the state Chamber of Commerce dinner from Gov. Christie, whose keynote speech thanked Menendez "for his leadership" on the recently approved Sandy relief package, along with other lawmakers.

For Menendez, it might have been a chance to shine in the spotlight of a rising profile, including a key role in immigration reform and chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Democrats gave him Tuesday.

Instead, allegations swirled around him, and his office confirmed that he took more than two years to repay a donor and friend for 2010 flights on a private plane. That donor, South Florida eye surgeon Salomon Melgen, is now under federal investigation.

FBI agents raided Melgen's offices Tuesday night, drawing attention to his ties to Menendez, and to other, unsubstantiated claims that had previously been confined to conservative websites.

The Miami Herald reported that the raid focused on potential Medicare fraud but that a corruption investigation was also under way. The report did not specify what actions might be under scrutiny.

Menendez eluded reporters in the Capitol on Thursday. At the evening event, he gave a speech but walked away in stony silence as reporters fired questions at him.

The FBI has declined comment on the scope of its inquiry, and Menendez's spokeswoman said Thursday that the senator's office had not been contacted by investigators.

His office, though, confirmed that Menendez repaid Melgen's company $58,500 on Jan. 4 for two flights the doctor provided on his private plane in 2010, both to the Dominican Republic.

Menendez repaid the amounts from personal funds, his office said. That came after an "extensive review" of his travel records in the aftermath of a November ethics complaint filed by New Jersey Republicans, a Menendez spokesman said.

A third 2010 flight on Melgen's plane had been previously covered by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Menendez then led.

Senators are generally barred from accepting free trips, said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics group in Washington, though Menendez could have claimed a "friendship exemption."

To do that, he would have had to show that he provided gifts of similar value to Melgen, McGehee said. Instead, Menendez repaid Melgen. Independent ethics groups typically frown on such retroactive reimbursements, but McGehee said the Senate ethics committee often accepts such actions as a sufficient remedy.

An attorney for Melgen, who has been a generous campaign donor to Menendez and other Democrats, said the doctor "acted appropriately at all times," and that his reported IRS liens were "fully resolved."

"The government has not informed Dr. Melgen what concerns it may have," said an e-mailed statement from the lawyer, Dean Willbur Jr.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a fellow New Jersey Democrat, called the allegations "devastating," according to Politico. Menendez has a "sterling reputation . . . and our hope is that this, what we're hearing, is not as presented," Lautenberg was quoted as saying. "I think Bob will survive this."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) called Menendez a friend and "an outstanding senator."

At the evening event, Menendez spoke, introducing two National Guard members who helped rescue residents from Hurricane Sandy. Making no mention of the controversy, he spoke of the "grit and determination New Jerseyans are made of."

The most explosive allegation facing him was reported by the conservative Daily Caller: that Melgen helped Menendez, who is divorced, visit prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, including some said to be underage. Menendez has called the story false and "manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog."


Contact Jonathan Tamari

at jtamari@phillynews.com

or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog, "Capitol Inq," at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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