Dominican Port Deal Could Be Most Damaging Part of Case Against Sen. Robert Menendez

The trial of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez began earlier this month, but NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm says the media is so far missing the most important part of the case.

The New Jersey Democrat is facing six counts of bribery, three counts of honest services fraud, one count of falsifying congressional travel disclosures, and one count of interstate travel to carry out bribery.

The charges stem from Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and a major donor to Menendez’s re-election campaign. According to the testimony of Melgen’s former pilot, Menendez took at least 16 separate trips on the private jet between 2008 and 2010, which prosecutors claim constituted bribes to the senator.

The indictment also alleges that, in exchange for these favors, the senator helped Dr. Melgen’s two mistresses gain visas to the United States. Menendez’s lawyers claim that the women obtained the visas on merit.

Menendez has also faced allegations that he helped Dr. Melgen avoid payment of fines for Medicare fraud. In 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services required Dr. Melgen to pay back $8.9 million, which they claimed he had received under false pretenses from the Medicare reimbursement program. The IRS hit Dr. Melgen with a $6.2 million lien against his property later that year. However, Menendez met with DHS officials in 2010, and the following year, the IRS removed the $6.2 million lien.

The New Jersey senator also intervened on behalf of a company in which Melgen had a significant stake. During a 2012 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez said to Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs in the Western Hemisphere Matthew Rooney:

You have another company that has American investors that is seeking to — has a contract actually given to it by the Dominican Congress–ratified by the Dominican Congress to do X-rays of all of the cargo that goes through the ports, which have been problematic and for which in the past narcotics have been included in those cargo. And [the government of the Dominican Republic doesn’t] want to live by that contract either. You have, you know, some of the other countries that I have mentioned today with arbitration awards that have gone against them, and yet they don’t want to live by that. Well, what are we willing to do?

 Menendez went on to say that allowing foreign governments to violate agreements with American companies puts those companies “at a tremendous disadvantage.” The Deputy Assistant Secretary attempted to move on to discussing Argentina, a case he was more familiar with, but Menendez refocused the discussion on the Dominican Republic, cutting off the Secretary to say “I hope you’re going to look at the Dominican Republic. We’re happy to provide you with that information.”

At the time, ICSSI, a company in which Melgen owns a 50% stake, had a contract with the Dominican Republic to X-ray cargo going into Dominican ports since 2002, which had been in litigation since 2004.

The port security deal was uncovered by Tom Anderson, director of NLPC’s Government Integrity Project, and was the subject of a front-page New York Times story on February 1, 2013. NLPC provided information to the Times on an exclusive basis, apparently prompting the federal criminal investigation.

“There are entire areas of this case that [the defense counsel doesn’t] even want to talk about….and unfortunately, the press has picked up on the wrong story,” said Ken Boehm, legal expert and Chairman of The National Legal and Policy Center.

“All the other stuff – the private jets, the five-star hotels, the girlfriends – all that is very colorful, but for pure corruption, the port security deal trumps all of that.”

Menendez’s lawyers have been citing a previous case before the Supreme Court, McDonnell vs. United States (2016), in which the Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was accused of accepting bribes through his wife in exchange for special favors for major campaign donors.

The Supreme Court unanimously overturned McDonnell’s conviction. The Court concluded that for his actions to constitute accepting a bribe, McDonnell would have to have used the power of his office to perform “an official act” on behalf of those who bribed him, which they concluded he did not.

“They couldn’t pin much on McDonnell. They had him on arranging a meeting and calling a public official on behalf of a donor. This goes way beyond that,” Boehm said.

“This is going to be a gigantic trial in several different ways. The last sitting senator to be prosecuted was actually Ted Stevens, whose conviction was overturned. To get a senator whose conviction wasn’t overturned on appeal, you’d have to go back to Harrison Williams [in 1981], and of course, he dodged a bullet by resigning [before being expelled from the Senate].”

Officially, a sitting United States Senator cannot be removed from office, but they can be prevented from sitting by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. If Menendez were expelled, he would be prevented from voting but would continue to hold his position.

“There is a tradition for lesser or more difficult to prove corruption cases for prosecutors to let the public official walk, resign his seat in disgrace and go home; that’s not the case here,” said Boehm, a former prosecutor. “There’s just too much in the indictment. It really does give you a flavor of everything that’s there.”

Menendez’ seat is also up for election in 2018. Should he resign his seat, the current Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, would appoint a temporary replacement until the election.

Jamie Gregora is NLPC’s Washington Reporter.