The Fix | Analysis
April 26, 2018 at 5:28 PM
He escaped jail time last year, but Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) isn't entirely off scot free: He just got a strong slap on the wrist from his peers in the Senate.
On Thursday, the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee issued Menendez a “letter of admonition,” accusing the two-term senator of accepting gifts and private flights from a wealthy friend in exchange for doing the friend favors in Washington.
"[Y]our actions reflected discredit upon the Senate,” the six-member panel wrote. Menendez is up for reelection in November, and it's unclear what effect, if any, this letter will have. But it does complicate his argument that even those who have looked at the evidence have concluded that he did nothing wrong.
This is just the latest chapter of a case that has spanned courtrooms and countries and is more than a decade in the making. Here's a timeline of the major events in the case.
2006: Menendez is elected to the Senate.
As soon as 2006: Menendez takes weekend and week-long vacations to the Dominican Republic, Florida and Paris with Salomon Melgen on the wealthy doctor's private jet, prosecutors would later allege.
2012: Menendez gets reelected. Melgen is a major donor, contributing about $600,000 to super PACS to help his reelection campaign.
2012: An anonymous tipster reaches out to media outlets and the FBI to claim that Menendez was paying for underage prostitutes while in the Dominican Republic. Those allegations didn't pan out, but they spurred the government's closer look at Menendez's relationship with Melgen, The Post's Paul Kane and Carol Leonnig reported.
April 1, 2015: Menendez is indicted on federal corruption charges. It is the first time in a generation that a sitting U.S. senator is indicted by the administration of his own party.
The Justice Department accuses Menendez of using his official position to help Melgen get around U.S. government roadblocks for his business and personal ventures. Melgen is also indicted.
The indictment alleges that the men engaged in a quid pro quo since Menendez was first elected, detailing allegations that included the following:
Both men deny the charges. Menendez explains that he and Melgen are old friends and that he treats Melgen like any other constituent in need.
“I’m angry and ready to fight,” Menendez tells his supporters the night of the indictment.
April 2015: Menendez temporarily steps down from his position as the top-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee as he fights the charges.
His supporters immediately zero in on the benefit that Menendez's resignation could have for then-President Barack Obama: As a Cuban American, Menendez vociferously opposed Obama's olive branch to Cuba, which was going on around the same time that Menendez stepped down.
There's no proof that the indictment was in any way connected to politics. Nonetheless, its effect was tangible in the political world: “The net result of the indictment was ... that a legislative check was removed from the Obama administration's foreign policy,” said Brigid Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University.
In the days before the trial, Obama-era officials defend the indictment.
June 2016: The Supreme Court unanimously overturns a public corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in 2014 of accepting luxury gifts and cash from a businessman in exchange for McDonnell using his office to help the businessman.
The justices took issue with what constitutes an “official act,” arguing that in McDonnell's case, it was overly broad.
Menendez's attorneys perk up at this. The senator is accused of trying to influence executive decisions, not of writing laws that helped his buddy, they plan to argue, and they will ask the judge to throw the charges out altogether.
It doesn't work.
April 2017: In a separate criminal case, a Florida jury finds Melgen guilty of stealing up to $105 million from Medicare by falsely reporting the cost of treating patients in his Palm Beach County practice. It is one of the largest Medicare health-care fraud schemes in history. He is sentenced to 17 years in prison.
September 2017: The dual trial for Menendez and Melgen begins in New Jersey. It's the first federal bribery trial of a sitting U.S. senator in more than three decades.
November 2017: After more than two months, the jury tells the judge that it is deadlocked. The trial ends as a mistrial. Menendez is jubilant. “Today is Resurrection Day,” he says. " ... For those of you who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won't forget.”
January 2018: Prosecutors debate whether to start a second trial but end up deciding not to. A judge dismisses all charge against Menendez.
Also January 2018: The Senate Ethics Committee restarts its investigation into Menendez. It had put it on hold for five years while the criminal investigation was going on.
January-present: Menendez resumes his job as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and starts to advocate for causes — and campaign for reelection — like any other senator.
April 2018: The Senate Ethics Committee finishes its investigation and basically says it thinks Menendez was guilty of accepting bribes: “W]hile accepting these gifts, you used your position as a Member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen's personal and business interests.”
November 2018: Menendez is up for reelection for a third term. Before this letter was released, he appeared to have broad support against a relatively unknown Republican challenger. As The Post's Mike DeBonis reports:
A Quinnipiac University poll published last month gave Menendez a 17-point lead, and found that fewer than 40 percent of voters believed he had engaged in “serious wrongdoing” in office.