A federal grand jury this week indicted Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) with federal charges that related to the senator allegedly trading political assistance for various benefits from a Florida ophthalmologist.
That eye doctor – Salomon Melgen – is alleged to have given campaign cash, airplane rides and other gifts to Menendez, who is the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Prosecutors on the case say that Menendez used his office on Capitol Hill to assist Melgen’s assorted businesses.
Both Menendez and Melgen were indicted this week in New Jersey on counts of conspiracy, violating the Travel Act, bribery, and honest services fraud.
Menendez also has been charged with making false statements.
Menendez has been in Congress for more than 20 years, and has sometimes butted head with the current administration. Menendez has denied any impropriety for years.
In a March press conference, the senator stated that he always has conducted himself legally in his time in Congress.
Experts say that the prosecution could be complicated as it deals with a very fine line between politics and quid pro quo deals.
Menendez has always marketed himself as an American success story, who grew up as a Cuban immigrant in New Jersey. His Senate biography claims that he fought corruption when he was the mayor of Union City NJ.
The two men have known each other for many years; Melgen gave Menendez his very first political campaign funds for Congress of $500 more than 20 years ago. Since that time, Melgen has provided thousands of dollars to Menendez campaigns.
Republicans in New Jersey have charged for several years that the senator has broken rules of the Senate by flying on private jets around the country on Melgen’s dime.
Menendez’s office stated this week that the senator has traveled on Melgen’s plane several times but paid for the trips legally.
Menendez is one of the least wealthy US senators and is one of the few non-millionaire senators currently serving.
Menendez is hardly the first New Jersey politician accused of being corrupt. Almost 100 years ago, the legend is that New Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague used to accept visitors who carried large amounts of cash with them for political favors.
Hague died in 1956 and was a multi-millionaire, although oddly he had no source of income stated in his records, others than his mayor’s salary of $8500 per year.
He never was brought up on corruption charges, but many other New Jersey politicians have been, such as William Musto, who once was Menendez’s political mentor and former mayor of Union City NJ.
Another NJ US senator, Pete Williams, was caught in an FBI sting operation in the 1970s. Agents pretended they were wealthy sheiks looking to hand over bags of money for political favors. He served two years in prison.
Another NJ politician who has done jail time for corruption is Matthew Scannapieco, who was the mayor of Marlboro NJ. He pled guilty in 2005 to various charges, including tax evasion and accepting bribes. Chris Christie, then the US Attorney for New Jersey, said that Scannapieco was one of the most outrageous examples of public corruption. The politician served two years in prison only; he helped US marshals in various corruption probes. He was released from jail in 2010.
John Merla, Keyport NJ mayor from 1990-2007, was arrested by federal agents in 2005 in a sting operation that targeted political corruption in his county. He was a Republican when he was arrested, and renounced his party after his arrest. He served the rest of his time in office as an independent. He was accused of accepting $25,000 in bribes from federal agents in exchange for a city contract. He served two years in federal prison and was released in 2009.
Many political insiders wonder what it is about New Jersey in particular that seems to make the state so corrupt. According to author Bob Ingle, who wrote The Soprano State, it just seems that there are more people in the state who accept corrupt practices.
A big part of it is that the state is full of government bureaucrats. It is a small state but it has an astounding 565 municipalities, which is a source for a lot of corruption.