Political Corruption 102: The Case Of Robert Menendez

Now that you have educated yourself on the law of political corruption via yesterday's post, try applying your newfound knowledge to a currently-pending case -- that of Robert Menendez.  We'll call this course Political Corruption 102.

Robert Menendez is the sitting Democratic Senator from the state of New Jersey.  In April 2015 he was indicted by the federal prosecutors in New Jersey on multiple counts of bribery in relation to his dealings with one Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor from Florida.  It is relevant to know that in April of this year, according to the Washington Post, Melgen was convicted by a Florida jury for stealing up to $105 million from the Medicare program.  Menendez's trial on his own charges is currently underway at the federal courthouse in beautiful downtown Newark, New Jersey.  

I'm completely prepared to agree that this Menendez guy is as corrupt a pol as ever strode the corridors of the Capitol.  But that doesn't necessarily make his conduct a federal crime.  The amounts of money that Melgen sent the way of Menendez certainly make Dean Skelos look small time by comparison; and in return Menendez seems to have devoted endless hours of his own time and that of his staff working to get the federal bureaucracy to do Melgen's bidding.  So -- criminal or not criminal?  

The same Washington Post article linked above summarizes the particulars of the quid and the quo that allegedly constitute the Melgen/Menendez bribery.  Here's the quid:

  • Menendez took 19 free rides on Melgen's private jets to luxury resorts around the world, sometimes bringing guests.
  • Melgen made more than $600,000 in campaign donations to super PACs to get Menendez reelected in 2012.

And the quo:

  • Menendez helped three of Melgen's foreign-born girlfriends get visas to visit the United States.
  • Over a period of four years, Menendez held several meetings with U.S. health officials to help Melgen settle an $8.9 million Medicare payment dispute, at one point asking then-Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to help out.
  • As Melgen was emailing Menendez's staff in April and May 2012, promising to donate to Menendez's campaign, prosecutors allege Menendez reached out to top State Department officials to urge them to enforce a port-security contract with the Dominican Republic that would benefit Melgen's company.

The obvious problem here is that the things that Menendez was trying to accomplish for Melgen were not things that Menendez could do on his own authority.  Rather, all Menendez could do was to try to get the bureaucracy to help his friend.  So he arranged meetings and held conversations.  Maybe even lots of meetings and lots of conversations.  Maybe he even yelled at some of the bureaucrats.  So?  

Yesterday's New York Times reported on the progress of the trial.  On Thursday a guy named Todd Robinson was on the stand.  Robinson is the current U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, but in 2012 worked for the Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and was the point person on discussions about the port security contract that was of interest to Melgen.  From the Times:

The government’s questions framed Mr. Menendez’s actions as not merely acts of friendship, or typical work on behalf of constituents, as defense lawyers have argued. Instead, they seemed carefully calibrated to show that the meetings and conversations the senator arranged were “official acts,” the bar that the United States Supreme Court has recently established must be met for actions by elected officials to rise to the level of corruption.

So what if anything takes this case beyond the mere setting up of meetings that has been determined by the Supreme Court as not being enough to constitute bribery?  From the Times's account of Robinson's testimony:

Mr. Menendez warned that he would convene a Senate hearing, Mr. Robinson testified, if the State Department did not help Dr. Melgen resolve a contract dispute between the Dominican government and Dr. Melgen’s company.  “The senator noted displeasure very clearly with the current state of affairs and threatened to hold a hearing on the matter if we don’t meet his deadline,” a State Department official wrote in an email to Mr. Robinson. . . .  Mr. Robinson added, “It was not likely to be a friendly hearing, because you have the word threat in the email.”

Nothing in the Times report indicates whether any such hearing was ever held, or whether the State Department ever actually did what Menendez asked them to do on behalf of Melgen.  It's a fair bet that if either of those two things had occurred, the prosecutors would be emphasizing those facts.

So it looks like the case comes down to whether the prosecutors can get friendly witnesses to characterize the setting up of meetings and the holding of conversations in semantic terms that make these things seem like something really serious.  He didn't just set up a meeting, he "threatened to hold a hearing"!  But what is the "official act" that Menendez did on his own authority?  We're still waiting to find out.  And what distinguishes his conduct from that of every other member of Congress?  

At least this trial is an eye opener in revealing how the pols actually allocate their time.  Do you think they spend their days deeply engaged in the project to create perfect justice and fairness in human affairs?  Actually, we find out that their priority number one is trying to get the bureaucracy to do favors for the big contributors.  Surprise!