Senator’s Corruption Trial Reveals State Department Favors
Menendez stands accused of using his oversight role to guarantee visas and business transactions for friend.
For the first time in nearly four decades, a sitting U.S. senator is on trial for federal bribery, and he’s dragging the State Department into his legal quagmire.
Sen. Bob Menendez’s trial for bribery is shining an uncomfortable light on the lawmaker’s efforts to pressure State Department, including allegations he helped settle a dispute over a lucrative foreign contract in favor of a friend and campaign donor.
That’s just one of a dozen other bribery and corruption charges being levied against Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey. Prosecutors also allege that the senator helped acquire U.S. visas for several of the donor’s foreign girlfriends, citing official State Department records and emails between the senator and his staff.
According to a filing in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, Menendez exerted “considerable efforts to pressure the Executive Branch” to repay the favors he received from Salomon Melgen – including campaign donations and trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic. For at least part of the period under investigation, Menendez was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a key oversight role for the State Department.
The first opportunity to exert such pressure came when Melgen allegedly wanted to bring several girlfriends from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Ukraine to the United States. According to the court filings, citing State Department records, the woman from the Dominican Republic and her sister were initially denied entry because the interviewing agent was not “fully convinced of motives for travel.”
Citing internal office emails, Melgen then alerted Menendez who told one of his Senate staffers to call the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic “asap.” A month later, according to consular records, the women were re-interviewed by a different officer and given visas.
“In my view, this is ONLY DUE to the fact that [Menendez] intervened,” the staffer responsible for the initial outreach wrote in a subsequent email to a colleague.
The second instance occurred after Melgen purchased a Dominican company with a contract to install and operate X-ray screening machines in the Dominican Republic’s ports. Though the contract was reportedly worth up to $115 million, the company was locked up in a legal battle with the Dominican government, rendering the purchase essentially worthless.
The prosecution alleged that Menendez once again intervened with the State Department to help resolve the dispute in Melgen’s favor in exchange for $60,000 in campaign and legal defense fund contributions.
Menendez has sharply rebuffed the allegations against him. “Never, not once, not once have I dishonored my public office,” an emotional Menendez told reporters on Sept. 6. “I started my public career fighting corruption, that’s how I started, and I have always acted in accordance with the law and I believe when all of the facts are known, I will be vindicated.”
In statements before the U.S. District Court in New Jersey in August, Menendez’s chief counsel, Abbe Lowell, denied any wrongdoing on behalf of his client. Menendez’s intervention on the X-ray screening issue “was about real security at the ports for cargo headed to the United States and to New Jersey,” he said. “And as to visas, it was about people being treated fairly by immigration and government officials.”
The State Department declined to comment on the allegations or trial.
Though the trial is barely a week old, it’s already sparked some courtroom drama. At one point, the presiding judge told an attorney to “shut up” and jokingly comparing himself to a Spanish Inquisition leader. Melgen’s attorney likened the trial to an ‘attack on Hispanics,’ (Melgen is a Dominican native and Menendez is of Cuban descent), and prosecutors accused Menendez of being “Melgen’s personal United States Senator.”
Politically, the brewing scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for embattled Senate Democrats. The party is hoping to sweep this trial under the rug as it looks to gain ground in the 2018 congressional elections.
If Menendez is found guilty, he could be pressured to give up his seat — or the Senate could boot him out with 67 votes (a two-thirds majority). In that case, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie could name his replacement. With Republicans holding only a four seat majority, even one extra vote could breath new life into President Donald Trump’s flailing legislative agenda.
Menendez’s Democratic counterparts have been conspicuously quiet on the trial. Their silence “is both hypocritical and politically driven,” Michael Arens of the Republican National Committee told Foreign Policy.
Republicans aren’t letting the opportunity go to waste. Arens said Republicans are releasing targeted ads in key battleground states that question why the Democrats aren’t talking about the trial.
Photo credit:Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.