Menendez Trial Focuses on ‘Threats,’ Senate Hearing

Last week’s testimony in the trial of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) about a port security deal in the Dominican Republic may provide the basis for a bribery conviction. A State Department official, Todd Robinson, described how Menendez threatened to hold a Senate hearing if the Department did not pressure the Dominican government to honor a long-dormant contract with Menendez’ largest donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.

Last year, the Supreme Court significantly narrowed the grounds on which a public official can be prosecuted for bribery. The public official’s actions must include an “official act” in exchange for some consideration. It cannot simply be setting up a meeting, making a phone call, or other actions generally thought to be “constituent services.” Calling a meeting of a Senate subcommittee on Melgen’s behalf, however, would classify as an “official act.”

In May of 2012, Menendez set up a meeting with State Department officials, asking them to help resolve the dispute between the Dominican government and Melgen’s security firm. As we have previously covered, Menendez went ahead and called the hearing, which took place two months later.

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.

A Commerce Department official testified about threats of political retaliation from Melgen’s lawyer during a meeting in 2012. Trade specialist Scott Smith stated that the tone of Melgen’s attorney was “just threatening.” Smith also said that during the meeting, Melgen’s attorney kept repeating that Melgen had “influential friends” who could cause serious difficulties for the Commerce Department.

At the time, Melgen’s security firm, ICSSI, had a contract to provide the government of the Dominican Republic with x-ray equipment to scan cargo passing through their ports in an effort to curtail drug trafficking through the Caribbean nation. Melgen’s lawyers scheduled the meeting in hopes of gaining the Commerce Department’s help in extracting financial concessions from the Dominican government. U.S. Customs and Border Protection was planning on donating some of its x-ray equipment to the Dominican Republic to help with the effort, which could have undercut Melgen’s interests.

According to the New York Times, much of the previous testimony in the case had centered around “mundane’ details of jet trips and other favors Melgen provided for Menendez, but Smith’s testimony “seemed to jolt most of the courtroom to attention.”

In January of 2013, after the meetings took place, U.S. Customs and Border Protection received an “unusual” request from Menendez’ office, asking them to delay shipments of x-ray equipment to Dominican ports. While Senator Menendez does not deny the facts of the case, his counsel has disputed allegations of corrupt intent, arguing that the senator was legitimately concerned about the security of cargo screening in Dominican ports and that his efforts were not influenced by any money or favors he received from Melgen.

In their efforts to establish a quid pro quo, a necessary component of proving bribery, prosecutors pointed out that Melgen’s representative donated $60,000 to Menendez’s legal defense fund on May 12th, 2012, the same day that Menendez requested a meeting with State Department officials to discuss Melgen’s dealings in the Dominican Republic.

“It was really quite audacious to call a Senate hearing for the sole benefit of Melgen,” Anderson said. “When I discovered it, I nearly fell out of my chair. It was clear to me exactly what was going on. If Menendez is convicted, it will be very gratifying.”

Jamie Gregora is NLPC’s Washington Reporter.