A federal grand jury in Florida is investigating Senator Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), over actions he has taken to further the interests of a wealthy friend and donor, the Washington Post has learned:
Menendez has intervened in matters affecting the financial interests of Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, seeking to apply pressure on the Dominican government to honor a contract with Melgen’s port-security company, documents and interviews show. Also, Menendez’s office has acknowledged he interceded with federal health-care officials after they said that Melgen had overbilled the U.S. government for care at his clinic.
Melgen has provided Menendez with plane flights and hospitality at his Dominican vacation home, say people acquainted with their relationship.
Last month, people with knowledge of the case said FBI agents were conducting interviews in the Dominican Republic and the United States concerning allegations against Menendez, including the role he played in advocating for the enforcement of the port-security contract. A grand jury probe, which involves a prosecutor pursuing allegations with an eye toward possible indictment, typically represents a legal escalation, though it does not always lead to a prosecution.
As part of the grand jury investigation, the three people said, federal agents have questioned witnesses about the interactions between Menendez and Melgen, who contributed $700,000 last year to Menendez and other Senate Democrats. The grand jury has also issued subpoenas for Melgen’s business and financial records, according to two people briefed on the probe who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation.
Mendendez said he welcomes a probe. “I believe, at the end of the day, that my actions have been appropriate,” he told the Post. Melgen’s lawyer is also confident that any inquiry would reveal his client had “acted appropriately.” As the piece explains, it is quite difficult to marshal enough evidence to prove that political bribery occurred, especially in a case where the two people in question have a long-established friendship:
Stan Brand, a veteran defense lawyer on numerous public-corruption cases, said establishing evidence of a crime in a scenario like that being examined by the Miami grand jury would be a “real tough row to hoe” for investigators and prosecutors. Federal bribery laws require proof that a politician received something of value with the express purpose and understanding that it was to influence his or her official action.
“You must show an absolutely direct nexus between the thing of value and the intent and the official act,” Brand said. “Unless you have a wiretap or direct evidence of an official saying, ‘I’ll do this for that,’ it’s too hard to show that.”
Menendez is already under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee for his failure to disclose two free flights to the Dominican Republic that he took on Melgen’s private plane in 2010. In February, the New York Times called upon Senator Harry Reid to remove Menendez from his new post as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at least while that investigation was ongoing. The news of the grand-jury probe could renew the push for Reid to act.