Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is facing down an indictment of criminal charge with a non-guilty plea. The charges cover eight counts of bribary and focus on his financial and political relationship with a Florida ophthalmologist, Salomon Melgan. Menendez has not admitted guilt and says he plans to fight the charges, saying that prosecutors “don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper,” according to CNN. Despite his protestations to the contrary, the Democratic senator is facing damning evidence and allegations.
“Government corruption — at any level of elected office — corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “It is the fundamental responsibility of the Department of Justice to hold public officials accountable by conducting thorough investigations and seeking an indictment when the facts and the law support it.” While almost certainly not his intention, his case does make him a strong example of where the historic Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission went wrong.
First, let’s take a look at what he’s been accused of in slightly more detail. What did the senator get out of the relationship? The accusations are carefully detailed in the published court indictment, which spans some 68 pages and includes bribery charges. Menendez is accused of accepting flights, use of and access to various luxury vacation rooms, entertainment in the way of fine dining and golf, and funding in the tens of thousands to his legal defense fund along with other financial contributions from Salomon Melgan. The document is detailed and exhaustive, going into everything from a weekend in Punta Cana, three nights at the Park Hyatt in Paris, a Caribbean villa vacation, a hired car service, and even meeting requested donations for other politicians.
One letter sent to Melgen read:
“The Senator asked me to write you and ask for our help. We are raising money for Senator  because she helped us earlier this Spring. She raised $25k for our campaign and now we are returning the favor because she is facing a primary in August. Will you and [your wife] help us meet our obligations and contribute $5k each to Senator ’s campaign? We feel indebted to Senator  and we would really appreciate your help.”
Menendez later personally contacted Melgen and asked for a smaller sum, which he then received. Many other financial contributions have more directly related to Super PACs and Menendez’s political career; for example $600,000 donated to Majority PAC and specifically to the New Jersey Senate race. Many other examples also exist.
So what did Melgen get out of the tit-for-tat relationship with the senator? For one thing, help with visa applications for his girlfriends, one model/actress/lawyer/student from Brazil, a model from the Dominican Republic and her sister, and a model/actress from Ukraine. Menendez also came to the aid of Melgen as an advocate when he was dealing with contract disputes, billing disputes, and a myriad of areas where his political influence proved useful (see page 28 and on). This support was often seen shortly after donations given to Menendez and related PACs.
So now back to the case of Citizens United, which ruled in 2010 that corporations had the right to donate enormous sums of money to political action committees. Critics argued that by ruling in favor of the concept of corporations as “individuals” the court was empowering them to exact influence over the politicians they donated funds to, and giving them treatment now appropriate for their status as companies. The justification for the ruling was given based on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and political expression.
Menendez’s case acts as an example of how directly related political action and donations are, how easily influence can be won via large donations from those with money, and how these donations and their true purpose can be masked in the method of donation. Menendez is hardly the first politician to act as a living example — Gov. Scott Walker‘s (R-Wisc.) recall election funding was one not long ago — nor is he likely to be the last. During elections, donations often come under scrutiny and have increasingly been an issue, particularly in the last midterm in Alaska. Donations for ad campaigns from oil-billionaire Koch brothers were highly problematic for various candidates especially. “It’s too bad they’re trying to buy America, and it’s time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers who are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine,” said Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the Senate floor in an anti-Koch brother speech in February.
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