02/09/13 - New York Times - EDITORIAL: Mr. Menendez's Ethics Problem
Senator Robert Menendez was never a distinguished choice for chairman of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the position he ascended to this
month by virtue of seniority. Concerns about that quality gap have sharply
escalated amid new disclosures about Mr. Menendez's use of his position to
advance the financial interests of a friend and big donor. Instead of
trying to protect Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, the Senate majority
leader, Harry Reid, needs to remove his gavel, at least pending credible
resolution by the Senate Ethics Committee of the swirling accusations of
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(99) > At issue are the curious dealings between Mr. Menendez and his close
friend and benefactor Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye surgeon and
major Democratic donor. The senator's efforts to help Dr. Melgen,
part-owner of a firm that had a long-dormant contract with the Dominican
Republic to provide port security, revive that lucrative contract - deemed
an exorbitant giveaway by business leaders and government officials there -
were detailed in an article in The Times last week by Raymond Hernandez and
Frances Robles. The contract's dubious legitimacy and Dr. Melgen's lack of
experience in border security issues did not deter Mr. Menendez from
pressing State and Commerce Department officials to insist that the
contract be honored, including at a hearing in July of the Senate Foreign
Relations subcommittee over which he presided.
Compounding the unseemliness, Senator Menendez's help came as Dr. Melgen
was in the process of making donations totaling $700,000 to Majority PAC, a
Democratic "super PAC" set up by former aides to Mr. Reid. Majority PAC
ended up shoveling $582,500 to Mr. Menendez's 2012 re-election campaign.
Mr. Menendez's interventions on Dr. Melgen's behalf were not limited to
port security. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Mr. Menendez
personally raised concerns with top federal health officials in 2009 and
again in 2012 about the fairness of their finding that Dr. Melgen had
overbilled the government $8.9 million for care provided at his eye clinic.
The Post also reported that Dr. Melgen invoked the senator's name
repeatedly to exert pressure on federal fraud investigators. Last week,
F.B.I. agents raided Dr. Melgen's offices in West Palm Beach and removed 30
boxes of documents and other material, but the focus of the inquiry is
The relationship between Mr. Menendez and Dr. Melgen was drawn into the
spotlight following recent reports that Mr. Menendez had accepted two
round-trip flights aboard Dr. Melgen's jet for personal vacations in the
Dominican Republic in 2010. In January, Mr. Menendez sent Dr. Melgen a
check for $58,500 to reimburse the cost of the flights, which he had failed
to report as gifts at the time or reimburse, as required.
It appears Mr. Menendez has learned little from his own previous ethics
issues or from the fall of a former New Jersey senator, Robert Torricelli,
who decided not to run for re-election in 2002 amid allegations that he had
inappropriately aided a big donor and accepted expensive gifts. It is
unclear whether the Senate Ethics Committee has initiated a formal inquiry
into Mr. Menendez's conduct, but a prompt and thorough review is surely
called for. In the meantime, Mr. Menendez needs to relinquish his
leadership role, at least temporarily.
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