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The Menendez Indictment

In what is probably the biggest non-story in New Jersey's political landscape at present, our senior Senator, Democrat Robert "Bob" Menendez, has been indicted for corruption.  The way politics works, some are completely not surprised:  scrutinize any politician severely enough and you are bound to find something questionable enough to raise ethics issues.  Republicans are trying not to smile at the possibility that Republican Governor Chris Christie may be called upon to appoint an interim Senator to fill the position (although when our former senior Senator Frank Lautenberg died Christie instead rushed a special election to fill the seat), and Democrats are attempting politely to distance themselves from Menendez.  Menendez was already out of favor to some degree among Democrats:  the American-born son of Cuban immigrants opposes the Obama immigration policy, specifically in relation to creating an easy path to citizenship for illegal aliens, which he rejects.

The Menendez Indictment

The Senator has a long political history, stretching back to the late 1970s on the Union City Board of Education, a city of which he became Mayor, then moved to New Jersey's General Assembly and Senate, reaching the United States House of Representatives in 1993.  In 2006 he was appointed to replace then freshman Senator Jon Corzine in the United States Senate, Democrat Corzine having been elected Governor of New Jersey, and that fall Menendez won election to stay in that office.  He withstood a Tea Party recall challenge in 2010, and was re-elected in 2012.

The Justice Department asserts that Menendez improperly used his influence to obtain favors for his friend Dr. Salomon Melgen, long-time supporter of the Senator, a Florida-based ophthamalogist and businessman.  The case relies largely on a coincidence of gifts from Melgen, including campaign contributions and also such favors as lending a vacation home to the Senator for a few days, with actions by the Senator on behalf of Melgen's interests, such as assisting his girlfriends with visa problems and arranging business contracts with foreign interests.  The implication is that Menendez did favors for his contributor in exchange for money and favors in return.

How strong a case is it?  There are certainly serious weaknesses.  After all, friends often do favors for each other, and it is not illegal for a Senator to do a political favor for a friend; further, it would be stranger if he were to do favors for a friend who did not support his career in any way.

One point in Menendez' favor is that at least as far as has been announced there is only one dubious connection, that to Melgen.  The government's case would be considerably stronger if they could show that the Senator did favors for several persons from whom he received contributions or gifts.  The fact that he had this relationships with one unique individual supports the belief that this is a reasonable personal relationship, each doing favors for the other because, after all, friends do favors for each other.  The relationship is described as a long-time friendship, and that also plays in his favor--particularly if he can show evidence that they were friends prior to his election to the House of Representatives, when he was by and large a New Jersey political figure.  That is particularly so if Melgen, not a New Jersey resident, never was, which would mean that their friendship predated any possible political advantages that might have been anticipated.

That does not mean that Menendez will be acquitted, let alone exonerated; juries tend to dislike corruption in people in power.  However, if this is the best that the Justice Department has after a three-year investigation, it is a poor showing which seems motivated more from politics than from law enforcement.  I disagree with Menendez on many issues, but it does not appear to me that this is a strong case against him.

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