Culture of Corruption
The special case of Bob Menendez.


Stephen Spruiell

For the past week, the mainstream media has run story after story about the nastiness of this year’s campaign ads — perhaps as a way to distract our attention from their own dirty tricks. Among the ads that have drawn critical coverage are those currently running in New Jersey against incumbent Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. Most of the local media have scolded the campaign of Republican candidate Tom Kean Jr. for the “down and dirty” ads, and a national commentator even called them racist. But there is nothing dirty or racist about pointing out that Menendez is the only U.S. senator whose dealings are the subject of a federal corruption probe.

Menendez’s political beginnings can be traced back to Hudson County, widely known as one of the most corrupt in the country. He served as the mayor of Union City and a member of the New Jersey state legislature before moving on to the U.S. House of Representatives. When then-Senator Jon Corzine was elected governor, he appointed Menendez to take his place — a decision that, according to a report in The Hill, went against the advice of top Democratic officials.

It’s easy to see why those officials were wary. Only months after his appointment, stories about Menendez and corruption started to surface. One — involving rental payments Menendez received from a federally funded nonprofit — seems innocent enough, but has sparked a federal investigation. The second — involving a close associate of Menendez who applied pressure in exchange for political favors — reeks of corruption, but hasn’t appeared to significantly damage his campaign.

Last August, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Menendez rented office space to a Union City nonprofit agency between 1993 to 2003. The Inquirer reported that in 1998, while still cashing the agency’s rent checks, “Menendez assisted the program in winning a designation as a federally qualified health center from the Department of Health and Human Services, a decision that expanded its eligibility for federal funding.”

According to a report in the Newark Star-Ledger, Menendez claimed that he rented at below-market rates (true), and never made a profit on the deal (false). Nevertheless, the agency had an escape clause allowing it to void its lease if it lost federal funding — which would have left Menendez without a tenant.

No doubt if Menendez were a Republican, Chuck Schumer would have pronounced this little arrangement part of the “culture of corruption” in Congress. In fact, some left-leaning government watchdogs who make a living alleging such things did chide Menendez for the “appearance of corruption.” But any fair-minded person — to say nothing of New Jersey Democrats — looking at the facts of the case would probably be inclined to dismiss it, because Menendez rented at below-market rates. Well, that and he’s a Democrat and already inclined to increase federal spending on such do-gooderism.

The much more serious charge involves Menendez’s close friend and associate Donald Scarinci. Last month, a psychiatrist named Oscar Sandoval, who had contracts with Hudson County, released a set of tapes on which Scarinci asks him to hire Menendez’s friend. Scarinci is heard saying, “Menendez will consider that a favor.” Scarinci adds that he is asking on behalf of Menendez, and that hiring this doctor will provide Sandoval — now an FBI informant in a separate corruption case — with “protection.” (Listen to the relevant segments here.)

As soon as the tapes were released, the Menendez campaign cut its ties with Scarinci, who had been among Menendez’s closest advisers and fundraisers. A Menendez spokesman also denied that Scarinci had been acting on Menendez’s behalf. But the state GOP was quick to point out that all the allegations about Scarinci had been made public in the spring when Sandoval filed court papers revealing the nature of the tapes. When asked why Menendez waited until the release of the tapes to sever ties with Scarinci, a Menendez spokesman noted the distinction between the court papers and the tapes: “That’s a big difference.”

It sure is. For one thing, tapes work better than court papers in TV ads, and are especially effective when played over ominous music. The tapes also indicate conclusively that, at the very least, Menendez associates with some dirty players. The air of corruption around Menendez led the Free Enterprise Fund to sponsor a campaign ad that spoofs HBO’s The Sopranos (mobsters in New Jersey). In the ad, an actor dressed as a Soprano frets that Menendez might lose to Kean, costing the mob its sweetheart contracts.

This is what prompted ridiculous cries of racism from Hardball’s Chris Matthews, who reduced the ad’s message to, “If you’re ethnic, you’re a crook.” So the next time you see a segment on “dirty campaign ads,” remember: By the standards the media have applied to the New Jersey Senate race, drawing attention to widely reported and well-founded charges of corruption against a Democrat is “dirty,” and if the Democrat is a minority, it’s “racist.”

– Stephen Spruiell is NRO’s Media Blog reporter.