Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is on a good luck streak. On April 26, the Senate Ethics Committee formally admonished Menendez, who had faced multiple bribery charges until the Justice Department dropped the case four months ago. The ethics panel had concluded that he “knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts” from a Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, who was convicted in a separate case. It also ordered Menendez “to repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already paid.” While Menendez several years ago repaid $58,500, a sum he says reflects the value of the gifts, the true figure is likely a lot higher. True to form, the committee did not provide its own dollar figure.
Robert Menendez for several years had a close friendship with a Dominican-born, North Palm Beach, Fla.-based ophthalmologist, Salomon Melgen, a man with a gift for extracting Medicare reimbursements for unnecessary and often excruciating procedures. Melgen would be indicted in April 2015 for ripping off taxpayers by as much as $136 million. He was convicted last April on 67 fraud-related charges totaling about $73 million and was sentenced this February to 17 years in prison. Dr. Melgen also was an aspiring kingmaker, contributing over $1 million to political candidates and PACs starting in the late-Nineties. Fully $700,000 of that went to Menendez. A company of which Melgen was principal owner, ICSSI, was about to close a 20-year, $500 million contract with the Dominican government to provide port security in that Caribbean island nation, ostensibly to combat drug trafficking. Melgen stood to make a fortune. And he wanted to Robert Menendez to run cover for him.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on August 1, 2012, Menendez called on the Obama administration to promote tighter security at Dominican seaports. Referring to ICSSI without naming the firm, he stated, “You have another company that has American investors that is seeking to…do X-ray or all of the cargo that goes through the ports.” A couple of years earlier, the senator took three round trips on Melgen’s private jet to the Caribbean nation for extended stays. Under Senate ethics rules, senators may accept personal gifts but must report them if their value exceeds $250. Menendez’s trips cost a combined $58,500. Several Republicans filed an ethics complaint. And during January 2013, as details of his relationship with Melgen were surfacing, he repaid the doctor with a personal check.
Senator Menendez claims that the payments from Melgen were gifts. Yet to federal prosecutors they were bribes. As evidence revealed, Menendez likely had interceded on behalf of Dr. Melgen to thwart an investigation into the latter’s Medicare scams. He also obtained visas for Dr. Melgen’s varied foreign mistresses and pressured the U.S. State Department to intervene in a business dispute between Melgen and the Dominican government. Senator Menendez chose to go to trial. Last November 16, after jurors were unable to reach a verdict, the court declared a mistrial. And on January 31, prosecutors announced they were dropping the case.
Menendez walked. Yet there was some unfinished business. His peers on Capitol Hill had to determine appropriate sanctions. On April 26, a six-member bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee ordered Menendez to repay the value of all gifts and to amend his Financial Disclosure Reports. Though concluding that Menendez’ actions “violated Senate Rules and related statutes, and reflected discredit upon the Senate, the committee did not include an enforceable deadline or specify the method of calculating the debt. This the committee gave Senator Menendez substantial leeway in defining the terms of repayment. And the senator logically has used this opportunity. “Everything else that I’m aware of has already been dealt with financially,” he said. “So we are inquiring to the committee what it is that [they’re] referring to because I think they made a generic statement without looking at the facts of what was largely already paid.”
Yet the $58,500 he paid back in 2013 may just be a fraction of the actual amount accepted. Federal prosecutors had estimated the value of his gifts and political donations at about $1 million. Even subtracting the campaign donations, that would leave about $300,000 in gratuities. The four-page Senate Ethics Committee letter of April 26 listed a variety of gifts that Menendez had accepted. In part, the letter stated:
From 2006 through 2013, you accepted numerous things of value from Dr. Melgen, including, but not limited to, travel on private and commercial flights, a luxury hotel stay in Paris, and lodging on 19 occasions at a Dominican Republic villa. You did not pay fair market value for, or, where required, obtain necessary written approval from the Committee to accept these gifts.
The letter concluded this way:
For the reasons set forth above, the Committee concludes that your actions violated Senate rules and related statutes, and reflected discredit upon the Senate. Accordingly, you must repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already repaid, and amend your Financial Disclosure Reports to include all reportable gifts. Finally, by this letter, you are hereby severely admonished.
The strong language is deserved. Yet by not specifying the true cost of what likely were acts of official bribery, the committee failed to complete its mission. In going to bat for a Medicare scam artist, Senator Menendez put the approval for a lucrative deal in a foreign country on a higher plane than the security of our own senior citizens. That’s something worth getting specific about.
Tom Anderson is director of NLPC’s Government Integrity Project.