Robert Menendez just got one of the best political jobs in Washington, and to make the victory that much sweeter, he landed it in record time. Now the question is whether or not he’ll be able to hold onto it.
Menendez, the junior senator from New Jersey rose to chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in less than two terms. Historically, with only a dozen or so standing committees, and more than 50 senators in the majority party, scarce chairmanships take many election cycles to achieve.
Menendez’s new committee chairmanship is so choice a political plum that former senator John Kerry spent two and a half decades on the panel before he earned the honor. His predecessor, then-Sen. Joe Biden, willingly traded in his prestigious chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee to control the distinguished international panel in 2001, and would hang on to its leadership until he took the vice president’s oath in 2009.
In his first weeks at the job, the new chairman has already presided over two high-profile nationally televised hearings: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s testimony on attacks against American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and Kerry’s confirmation as Clinton’s successor at the State Department.
Perhaps the foreign affairs chair imbues such competitive longing because foreign policy, the stuff of international development, democracy building and the like, while undoubtedly worldly and important, is sufficiently opaque that one’s constituents rarely find fault with one’s performance. At the same time, rich lobbyists and heads of state might easily seek the ear of someone who helps oversee America’s relationship with the rest of the world.
Incumbency has its privileges, and chairman’s gavels are typically awarded to the majority party senator on each committee with the most years in the Senate. Menendez only joined the club in 2006, appointed to then-Sen. Jon Corzine’s barely warmed seat when Corzine became New Jersey’s governor. Menendez won the committee chair this month when Kerry moved on to become secretary of state. (Sen. Barbara Boxer, the most senior Democrat on the panel, was ineligible for the promotion because she is chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and no senator may hold more than one full chairmanship at a time.)
Despite the rules quirk and good luck that brought Menendez to this enviable place, his own bad judgment will be at fault if he is forced to relinquish the gavel. The Democrat is a Cuban American who strongly supports the 50-year embargo against the Castro brothers (and his own relatives on the island) and has strong fundraising ties among conservative South Florida Latinos.
But an ill-advised friendship with a Miami supporter and campaign contributor, Salomon Melgen, could cost him his newly acquired title.
Melgen is an ophthalmologist who enjoys the company of powerful people (according to his own Web site he “has treated many well-respected individuals including Presidents, Governors, politicians, celebrities, and actors,”) and he befriended Menendez years ago. The eye doctor regularly contributes generously to the politician’s campaigns and often takes him on exotic trips in his private jet to his gated Dominican beach community, Casa de Campo.
Along with palm trees and sea breezes, South Florida is known for its high rate of Medicare fraud. In 2008, the federal government found evidence that Melgen overbilled the government by $8.9 million for ocular injections and other treatments at his eye care clinics. Melgen has been disputing the charge ever since, and, despite the amount of taxpayer money his extremely lucrative practice allegedly siphoned, he has suffered no apparent stigma. (Until, that is, the FBI and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services raided his West Palm Beach office last month.)
Two colleagues in Florida recounted to The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Jerry Markon that Melgen once quelled a critic in his profession by saying that “he had important friends in the Senate, including Menendez,” and these D.C. friends “could arrange an intensive federal audit of the surgeon’s practice.” Investigators familiar with Melgen’s audit problems also told The Post that the doctor frequently drops Menendez’s name in his own defense (“Menendez is a good friend of mine, and he knows I never did anything wrong”).
It’s one thing to brag about your powerful friends, but another to get them to intercede on your behalf. It was reported this month that Melgen — who has branched out from eye clinics to drug intervention in the Caribbean — needed help last year to enforce a disputed potential half-million-dollar port security contract with the Dominican Republic. Menendez urged U.S. officials testifying before his subcommittee to push the Dominican government to comply with the port agreement, and also lobbied against a Homeland Security plan to supply equipment that might give the Dominicans less incentive to honor Melgen’s contract.
Last week, Menendez aides confirmed in a press statement that their boss twice contacted federal officials with the agency that manages Medicare and Medicaid about its audit of Melgen. According to his staff, Menendez believed it was “unfair” to penalize the doctor for ambiguous billing rules.
If the senator’s inquiries were motivated simply by his sense of fairness and loyalty to a friend (but not the hundreds of thousands of dollars directed by Melgen to his campaign funds), then it sounds like the “tough hombre” New Jersey politician has gotten a little soft. Menendez got his start in the 1970s working for Union City Mayor William Musto. They were said to be “like father and son,” but when Musto was indicted on racketeering charges, Menendez testified against him (Menendez wore a bulletproof vest) and later took Musto’s job.
Based on the level of scrutiny he’s under — by the press, the FBI, the Senate ethics committee, his political opposition and his own party — whether the senator is ethically challenged, or simply naive and well-meaning, the truth may come out soon enough. In the meantime, he should try to enjoy that committee gavel, and its benefits, while he has them.
Bonnie Goldstein is a Washington, D.C., writer. Follow her on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel