WHAT ARE friends for? Well, Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) wealthy ophthalmologist friend Salomon Melgen provided him with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of private jet flights, hotel stays and campaign contributions between 2006 and 2013, according to a Justice Department indictment. Meanwhile, Mr. Menendez allegedly intervened with executive branch officials to help Dr. Melgen maintain a lucrative contract with the Dominican Republic, fend off charges that he overbilled Medicare by nearly $9 million and secure tourist visas for three different girlfriends from three different U.S. embassies abroad. Mr. Menendez declares himself “angry” that federal authorities have confused this two-man mutual admiration society with corruption, much less the specific crime, bribery, of which they accuse him.
The senator’s indignation is misplaced, to put it mildly. To be sure, the charge that sparked a federal investigation — an inflammatory claim, since recanted, that Dr. Melgen procured underage prostitutes for Mr. Menendez in the Dominican Republic — did not withstand scrutiny and forms no part of the indictment. Nevertheless, the indictment recounts more unreported trips aboard Dr. Melgen’s plane, in addition to the two that the senator has acknowledged (and belatedly paid for). That alleged violation of black-letter ethics rules alone is a glaringly unseemly circumstance, for which Mr. Menendez will be hard-pressed to offer an innocent explanation.
What’s more, the senator’s apparent “friendship” defense raises as many questions as it answers. Specifically, at what point does being a pal override an elected official’s duty to represent the public interest — as opposed to the allegedly venal interests of a private citizen who isn’t even his constituent? Did Mr. Menendez see nothing improper with, according to the indictment, leaning on U.S. consular officials to facilitate Dr. Melgen’s affairs? After charges against his chum of Medicare overbilling had survived repeated rounds of scrutiny, did it never occur to Mr. Menendez that they might be, you know, well-founded? Why was he not more troubled by allegations that improperly reusing a certain eye solution not only double-billed taxpayers but also put patients’ health at risk?
The Justice Department faces challenges of its own in convicting the senator of bribery. This indictment, it should be remembered, emerges from a public integrity section whose last case against a sitting senator was the badly flawed prosecution of the late Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The indictment suggests that Dr. Melgen’s largesse was meant to buy Mr. Menendez’s official acts “as opportunities arose” — a sort of retainer. In that sense, it is similar to the case against former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell, who was convicted. However, Mr. McDonnell and his alleged benefactor, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., were not longtime friends, as Dr. Melgen and Mr. Menendez were. A jury might view their transactions more indulgently, absent an explicit quid pro quo. The Menendez indictment depicts greed, log-rolling and cronyism. Alas, that’s nothing new in Washington; the burden is on the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, in this case, Mr. Menendez and his friend crossed the line that separates sleazy behavior from actual crime.
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