According to Sen. Bob Menendez, federal prosecutors just don’t understand the meaning of friendship.
More specifically, they don’t get that a high-powered Washington politician and a sketchy South Florida millionaire eye doctor could be such good friends that their lives revolved around paying each other favors and it could be both normal and legal.
Menendez stood outside a federal courthouse in Newark on Thursday afternoon after pleading not guilty to 14 criminal counts of bribery, conspiracy, and making false statements, after being indicted on Wednesday afternoon.
“For nearly three years, the Justice Department has pursued allegations based on spears launched by political opponents trying to silence me,” Menendez claimed.
“Now that they have laid out their case, we will finally have an opportunity to respond, in court, with the facts. As I said yesterday, these allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven false and I look forward to doing so in court.”
He repeated his comments in Spanish.
Three years ago, prosecutors began looking at the New Jersey Democrat’s friendship with Salomon Melgen, an ophthalmologist who became filthy rich, much to the ire of the government, because of Medicare. Melgen was suspiciously generous to Menendez: providing him with luxury hotel suites in Paris, stays at his vacation home (called Casa de Campo, of course), and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. In return, Menendez seemingly acted as Melgen’s personal advocate in the federal government.
Menendez claims this is typical friendly behavior. Prosecutors, he snapped on Wednesday, just “don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption.”
And sure, who among us hasn’t—as the indictment specifies—personally called an ambassador to get visas approved for three of our friend’s girlfriends, or intervened when that friend was accused of Medicare fraud, or tried to prevent a foreign government from screwing up a contract with that friend’s business—all while that friend financed our reelection campaign? It’s just what friends do.
Menendez’s defense hinges in part on the sheer length of his friendship with Melgen: 20 years. Of course, 20 years ago, Menendez was a congressman rising rapidly through the ranks in the Democratic Party. No matter, Menendez says, because the cigar-loving duo are so close that they know each other’s families.
“In politics, everybody’s your friend,” said Jeff Smith, a professor at the New School and former Missouri state senator who was himself nailed by the feds for obstruction of justice in 2009. “I had a lot of people who really seemed like friends, but they gave me money and they probably wanted things,” he elaborated.
Similarly with Menendez and Melgen, Smith said, “it wasn’t just a friendship where Melgen would give Menendez moral support and Menendez would give Melgen intellectual stimulation. It’s pretty clear that they both needed things.”
“The game is to do those things without crossing the line.”
One glance at the indictment, and it seems clear Menendez and Melgen didn’t merely cross the line, but lost sight of it completely.
“I don’t think this is a case of the proverbial ham sandwich,” Smith went on.
Brett Kappel, a campaign-finance expert, acknowledged there is no “bright line” between friendship and quid-pro-quo actions between conspirators: “In cases like this, the Justice Department looks very closely at the timing of the contributions compared to the actions taken by the legislator,” he said.
“The timeline in this case is very damaging to Senator Menendez, with some members of his staff soliciting contributions from Dr. Melgen contemporaneously with other members of this staff attempting to sway [Health and Human Services] employers on the Medicare reimbursement issue to Dr. Melgen’s benefit. In some cases solicitations and official actions happened on the same day. I would suspect that this timeline was crucial to the attorney general’s decision to proceed with the indictment.”
I’ve written about why such an outcome for Menendez might feel inevitable: New Jersey is, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump calculated, the No. 1 state in the country when it comes to politicians who also are criminals. But it also was arguably inevitable that it wasn’t just New Jersey that provided the culture of corruption, but the Citizens United decision.
Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said the most interesting part of the indictment has to do with Melgen’s $600,000 donation to Menendez, funneled through a super PAC run by former and current aides to Harry Reid, the intention of which was to maintain the Senate majority for Democrats.
“It shows how misguided the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, was when it declared that independent spending can’t or doesn’t pose any threat of corruption,” he said. “In fact, we see now, a very direct instance of corruption flowing from contributions made to an independent expenditure group.”
“I think this was all very predictable,” Ryan went on. “The court was completely out of touch with how politics works and this Menendez indictment reflects precisely how politics does work and influence-seekers are going to be exerting their corrupting influence through super PACs just as they used to do it through political parties and soft money. Super PACs provide the same exact types of threats and avenues for corruption.
“The court was wrong and now we have, at least, the first bit of alleged evidence about how wrong the court was in Citizens United.”
Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, agreed. On the Acela from Washington to New York City on Thursday afternoon, Potter told me that “the reality” is “that of course, candidates and officeholders are in the middle of the super PAC world.” He said it was a predictable outcome, although “the court claimed it wasn’t going to happen.”
The whole idea of Citizens United was that huge sums of money injected into politics wouldn’t cause corruption because the politicians themselves wouldn’t be involved in the super PACs—but what about Menendez and Melgen, so close that the latter selected hotel suites for the former?
“It’s possible that [Melgen] did that without anyone talking to the Menendez world,” Potter said, an eyebrow raised skeptically.
(The New York Times’ Nick Confessore and Matt Apuzzo do an expert job of examining this in great detail.)
Menendez’s innocence campaign has trucked along unconvincingly since Wednesday afternoon, when the indictment came down.
He launched a website, istandwithbob.com, which features a video of him (also available in Spanish!) not mincing words about the fact that he is definitely not guilty, according to him and several other people like fellow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Joe Cryan, a local Union County official best known in the Garden State for sending explicit emails about kinky, leather-clad sex to a lobbyist.
And in a sense that’s just perfect.