There really is a double standard when it comes to politicians accused of unethical behavior or corruption. Republicans tend to resign when the scandal involves merely deplorable or disgusting behavior. They are usually flayed in the media with a torrent of negative coverage. Democrats tend to receive less media attention for their scandals, thereby allowing them to cling to their positions of power, even when the criminal evidence against them is overwhelming.
Exhibit A involves the contrasting stories of Representative Tim Murphy, a GOP House member from Pennsylvania, and Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from neighboring New Jersey. Murphy, a pro-life congressman, became entangled in a divorce proceeding during which it was found that he had urged his pregnant girlfriend to have an abortion. The blatant hypocrisy led Republican leaders to abandon him. They pressured him to resign immediately, which he is doing this month. Other than a pattern of yelling and ridiculing staffers, Murphy appears to be guilty of nothing else.
Compare his case with that of Senator Robert Menendez, who until recently was his party’s chief spokesman on foreign policy as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Since September 5, he has been on trial in federal court in Newark, accused by prosecutors of having “paid” for alleged bribes using the “currency of his Senate office.”
Prosecutors and Menendez’s lawyers are in basic agreement on the facts of the case. Menendez accepted a series of gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who has been convicted of Medicare-reimbursement fraud. Menendez accepted numerous flights on a private jet, vacations in Paris and the Caribbean, and nearly $800,000 in campaign contributions from Dr. Melgen. Prosecutors have built a case that, in exchange for those gifts, Menendez lobbied to allow Dr. Melgen to keep nearly $9 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, arranged for U.S. visas for Dr. Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, and applied pressure on the Dominican Republic over a port-security contract Melgen owned.
Menendez said that the two men have known each other for more than 20 years and have often exchanged gifts. Therefore, he claimed, there was no bribery. Legal analysts clearly disagree. “The case against Menendez as a legal matter doesn’t look close, it looks overwhelming,” says MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, Ari Melber. “If a politician can take the kind of gifts Menendez has already taken and then be acquitted, then you have to wonder if there’s something wrong with all of these corruption laws in the first place.”
The evidence presented in the trial continues to pile up against Menendez. Kathleen Sebelius, the former health and human services secretary, has testified that she held a highly unusual meeting with Menendez during which he pressed the case that Dr. Melgen, who was not a constituent of his, should be reimbursed the nearly $9 million in rejected Medicare billings. Former senator Tom Harkin, who chaired the committee that oversaw Medicare, also held a meeting with Menendez and Dr. Melgen.
Dr. Louis Jacques, a former director of coverage and analysis for Medicare, testified that a Menendez staffer pressured him to allow Dr. Melgen to divide single-dose vials of an eye drug, Lucentis, to use on multiple patients. Dr. Melgen then billed Medicare for a full $2,000 dose for each patient. Dr. Jacques testified that he recalled a Menendez staffer’s saying: “The issue is very important to the senator. Melgen is a personal friend, and bad medicine isn’t illegal. Medicare should pay these claims.” Dr. Jacques told the jury he was so upset by the staffer’s language that he thought, “I should stand up, stretch, and clear my head.”
Despite all the elements of bald corruption in the case, television news has been largely uninterested in the Menendez trial. CNN spent less than 17 minutes covering the trial during its first month, compared with nearly two hours of coverage on the first day of revelations that former HHS secretary Tom Price had used chartered airplanes to fly to meetings, costing the government some $50,000 for his seat on the plane (the total cost for the use of the private jets, including support staff, was around $400,000).
According to the Media Research Center, the Menendez trial has received only one-sixth the coverage on CNN that the trial of Republican senator Ted Stevens of Alaska got back in 2008. Stevens was charged with accepting home renovations from a friend and not reporting them. There was no accusation that he had provided official favors in return. Stevens was convicted, but his conviction was later overturned after clear evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in the withholding of evidence from Stevens’s lawyers.
In contrast to the disgraced Murphy, the sleazy Menendez isn’t saying whether he will leave Congress if he is convicted.
In contrast to the disgraced Murphy, the sleazy Menendez isn’t saying whether he will leave Congress if he is convicted. He told reporters last Thursday that his poll numbers “will rise” if he is acquitted. “I have no intention of being anything but exonerated,” Menendez told CNN. “So therefore, I’m not contemplating anything but reelection next year.”
If Menendez is found guilty and if he nonetheless refuses to resign, he could be removed by a two-thirds vote of his colleagues. But that would require a third of the Democrats to side with every Republican, something no one expects to happen — especially as New Jersey’s GOP governor Chris Christie would fill any vacancy that occurred before Christie left office on January 19.
Anyone who has observed both major parties over the decades knows that each party has its share of fools, knaves, and outright crooks. But we should acknowledge that the foibles of Democrats take a lot longer to go to the center of the media’s radar screen. As Monica Showalter of the blog American Thinker notes: “Democrats . . . have the ‘well, we just have to win, then’ attitude, pioneered by Bill Clinton, winning at any cost, principles be damned.”
Perhaps the media will finally pay a little more attention to the Menendez trial next week, when former Senate majority leader Harry Reid is likely to testify. In 2011, Reid sought the White House’s help in getting the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reverse its ruling that Melgen owed almost $9 million for overbilling Medicare. Reid had flown on Melgen’s private plane and accepted $600,000 from the shady doctor for one of his political-action committees. Obama’s deputy chief of staff declined to intervene in the Menendez matter.
Despite this rich vein of scandal, the media will probably be relatively low-key in its coverage of the Menendez trial. There are too many politically inconvenient and politically incorrect issues, limiting its appeal to the media elite. Double standards will remain firmly in place.