Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) is having a bad month. He recently wrote a check to a large donor for nearly $60,000 reimbursing him for the generous gift of trips on a private jet. The paperwork had “fallen through the cracks,” an aide explained. Under investigation by the FBI regarding allegations that he engaged underage prostitutes during visits to the Dominican Republic (the destination of those jet trips), the senator was also recently embarrassed when it emerged that an 18-year-old intern on his staff who was helping with immigration issues was 1) an illegal alien and 2) a registered sex offender. Two AP stories suggest that the young man’s arrest was delayed by federal officials until after November 6, when Menendez was safely reelected to a second six-year term.
None of this came up when Menendez, the presumptive new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was interviewed on ABC’s This Week. Martha Raddatz confined her questions to immigration and such. The press often claims that scandal stories are interesting chiefly if they involve “hypocrisy” — as when a senator who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act was caught attempting something in an airport men’s room.
The definition of hypocrisy is slippery. Though misbehavior in men’s rooms is never a good thing, it is theoretically possible to be homosexual (closeted or otherwise) and genuinely support the Defense of Marriage Act.
Maybe the Larry Craig story was too salacious for the press to resist — Craig was a Republican after all. But here’s the confusing part: Why is it not hypocrisy for a liberal Democrat to use underage prostitutes? Are Democrats in favor of this kind of exploitation of girls?
The non-lewd aspects of the unspooling Menendez scandal are actually more important, because they illuminate the absolutely inescapable corruption that accompanies the expansion of government.
To its credit, the New York Times has reported that the New Jersey senator was the guest of Solomon Melgen on those visits to the Dominican Republic. Melgen, a generous donor to Menendez’s campaigns and to the Democratic party — he contributed more than $700,000 to a PAC aimed at helping Democrats win the Senate — recently purchased a company that provides port security. His company had apparently offered its services to a reluctant Dominican Republic. The Dominican customs inspector described the contract, estimated to be worth $500 million over 20 years, as “exorbitant.” The American Chamber of Commerce on the island opposed the deal. Melgen, an ophthalmologist, is nobody’s idea of a security specialist. The Chamber’s executive vice president told the Times that Melgen “has, to my knowledge, no previous experience in port security.”
Enter Senator Menendez. He reportedly asked officials at the State Department to lobby Dominican officials to approve the deal. Menendez’s chief of staff explained that the senator did nothing unethical. He has always “fought for U.S. companies that are not being treated fairly or have issues pending in other countries.”
Except it also emerges that another key beneficiary of the port deal would be Senator Menendez’s aide and close associate of 20 years, Pedro Pablo Permuy. Permuy was tapped to run the security company’s operations.
It’s certainly possible that Senator Menendez always speaks up for abused American companies that aren’t getting fair treatment in other countries. But then, there are other explanations for his behavior. Consider that in 2009, according to the Washington Post, Menendez intervened in a federal audit of Melgen. Melgen was being investigated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for fraud. Menendez protested to investigators that the billing rules were ambiguous.
Last week, the FBI descended upon Melgen’s offices in Miami and carted off dozens of boxes of documents. The FBI may be investigating Medicare fraud, the ports deal, the underage prostitutes, or matters we have not yet heard about.
What the story illustrates is the way government power is bent to private purposes. President Obama entered office boasting that lobbyists would be prohibited from serving in his administration — thus keeping corruption at bay. In fact, the White House has freely granted waivers for the people it wanted, and at least 374 Obama-administration officials have cycled through the revolving door.
But as the Menendez story shows, the presence of lobbyists in key posts is beside the point when elected officials misuse their power for friends and cronies. Barring lobbyists is window dressing. Corruption is the handmaiden of government. Remember that on Tuesday evening, when the president sings government’s praises.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.