Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 9, 2016

Cuban Conspiracy Aside, Menendez Troubles Remain

Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Menendez can breathe a sigh of relief — for the moment. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In the short term, anyway, the tide of good news seems to have turned in favor of Robert Menendez.

Officials in his old New Jersey congressional district named an elementary school for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman a few months ago. Then the Democrat celebrated his 60th birthday by announcing his engagement (in the Rotunda) to Alicia Mucci, a 45-year-old widowed constituent he’d met at a fundraiser.

But the best publicity Menendez has enjoyed all year arrived Monday, when the Washington Post reported on evidence the Cuban government may have fabricated and planted the lurid story that has smudged the senator’s reputation since just before his 2012 re-election bid. Menendez crowed to CNN Tuesday that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the regime in Havana had concocted the smear he had hired several underage Dominican prostitutes — because, he said, it “would do anything it can to stop me.”

What all the righteous indignation and melodramatic skullduggery obscures, however, is that Menendez continues to face questions about behavior that’s far more legally and politically problematic than the already substantially discredited tales about his cavorting at sex parties in the Caribbean.

For nearly two years, the Justice Department has been investigating whether Menendez illegally used his congressional office to benefit the business interests of his most generous donors, particularly Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee appears to have put its similar inquiry on hold in deference to the Feds.

If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community — than whether an antagonistic nation was able to make headway with an ambitious conspiracy to ruin an influential lawmaker.

Menendez is not only chairman of a prestigious committee, but he’s a senior member of two other powerful panels. Next year, he’ll be the third-ranking Democrat on Banking and will advance to No. 6 in party seniority on Finance. So his becoming enmeshed in an ethical imbroglio could complicate a broad array of legislation.

The senator is a formidable fundraiser for his party and one of the most articulate and outspoken voices at the Capitol for big-government liberalism. He also is a symbol for the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group and a crucial part of the Democratic base as the party’s only current Latino senator. (He was the first Hispanic from either party in congressional leadership, capping his seven-term House career with three years as chairman of the Democratic Caucus.)

The federal investigation that threatens to unravel that path-breaking career is reportedly focused on at least two aspects of the relationship between Menendez and Melgen, who stands as the senator’s top donor of the past decade because of the sums he’s donated directly to the senator and to allied political action committees.

There is evidence Menendez intervened with senior officials at the Department of Health and Human Services five years ago, after a Medicare audit found $8.9 million in questionable billings for eye treatments at Melgen’s clinics. (A database of all physician billings to Medicare, made public in April, showed Melgen was reimbursed $20.8 million for treating the elderly and disabled, the most of any other doctor in the country. His 894 patients underwent 94,000 procedures in 2012, according to the database.)

There are also reports Menendez pressed State and Commerce officials to help a port security firm partly owned by Melgen when it was seeking to keep doing business in the Dominican Republic.

The doctor also is a central player in the story alleging Menendez paid for prostitutes, because the pair were said to have flown on the physician’s jet during the congressional spring recess that year for trysts with teenagers at a plush resort. Taking travel gifts is rarely allowed under Hill ethics rules. Since the story was first published in the Daily Caller in November 2012, Menendez says he or his campaign have reimbursed Melgen $70,000 for a handful of flights dating to 2010.

Having corrected those “oversights,” as he’s termed them, Menendez says there is nothing improper about his time in the Dominican Republic.

And on Tuesday he and his lawyer asked President Barack Obama’s administration to pursue all evidence that Cuban intelligence agents cooked up the libidinous tale and invented a tipster named “Pete Williams” to peddle the story to several American and Latin American media outlets. The Post reported that last year the CIA relayed credible evidence of such a plot to the FBI’s counterintelligence division.

In Menendez’s view, the motive for such an outside-the-box effort is obvious: The senator, the son of Cuban immigrants, is probably the most passionate opponent in Congress for thawing relations with Cuba, so it would behoove the Castro regime to tarnish him so completely that he could never wield the gavel of committee that drives congressional foreign policy.

If that was the idea, the Cubans showed remarkable foresight. “Pete Williams” first surfaced six months before the 2012 elections, when it was far from clear there would be an Obama second term — let alone that John Kerry would then be asked to leave the Senate for the State Department, the move that landed Menendez the Foreign Relations gavel.

But the theory of Cuba as culprit has been circulating among the senator’s allies since the moment Menendez took over. “He’s been so steadfast against the Castro government. He’s been a critic all his political life,” Rep. Albio Sires, who succeeded Menendez in the House, told the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2013. “I would not be surprised if they are behind some of this stuff, some of these allegations.”

  • Becker300

    Another Dem with problems? Shocker. Dems lose 9 seats in the Senate.

  • manapp99

    Since we are depending on a federal investigation to get to the truth about Senator Menendez and the federal investigators work for a Democratic adminstration, you can bet the investigation will not wrap up anytime soon. No matter what they find.

  • John Williams

    “If federal prosecutors end up alleging Menendez broke the law, that would be a much bigger deal for the already dismal ethical reputation of Congress — as well as for the Democratic Party and Latino community…”

    Which is why this Administration will never prosecute him. It’s not politically convenient for Democrats and one of their core constituencies. Used to be Justice was blind and that it didn’t matter who you were, everyone was accountable–the current Administration, however, has apparently interpreted it to be a literal meaning of turning a blind eye to Democratic wrongdoing while using the law to harass and persecute it’s perceived enemies.

  • valwayne

    Cuban agents? LOL! That’s a laugh! Did the Cuban Agents kidnapped him and put him on that private jet for all those trips to the Dominican Republic? Exactly what was he doing on all those fancy secret trips to the Dominican Republic? Folks if it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck its almost always a duck. Cuban agents…..LOL! Wow!

  • Jason I. Poblete

    I’m not defending or have any knowledge of what Menendez did, however, the Cuban government has not denied what he said. And, if you doubt that the Cuban regime would do this, just ask Chris Simmons, the former DIA official who has captured many a spy, including Cuba’s woman in DC, DIA Analyst Ana Belen Montes. P.S., I’m a Republican

  • richard40

    So it sounds like the sex carges might bogus, but many other charges may still be true.

  • Ocean Sprayz

    The “big idea” of Marxism is the notion that a self-proclaimed group of the uber-enlightened are somehow magically entitled to consciously direct the future of mankind.

  • Yonatan YONATAN

    Senator John Boehner, and his republican cohorts in the senate, are directly responsible for the three million unemployed families, STILL without an extension of benefits since late last December. They have single handedly pushed these families into further financial ruin and deep poverty, over these last six months, without an extension bill. While they fought vigorously on behalf of the Koch brother’s oil pipeline bill, they totally disregarded the suffering of these families. While congress approved billions of dollars in aid for the Ukraine, and more money set aside for the defense of Europe, these American families were left hung out to dry. Recently more money is requested to support the illegal migrant children pouring undisrupted into our country, at the border. The president is planning on assisting these children with tax payer’s dollars. While this is commemorated, what about the three million unemployed Americans that have been forgotten about, who are still in a desperate financial situation, in our own country? Why are our poor and unemployed never a priority to our own government?

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