It's getting worse for Bob Menendez

Why we shouldn't surprised by the mess he's made for himself

By Steve Kornacki

Published February 11, 2013 12:25PM (EST)

It wasn’t the best weekend for Bob Menendez. On Saturday, a New York Times editorial called on the New Jersey senator to hand in his Foreign Relations Committee gavel while the Senate ethics committee investigates whether he exerted improper influence to help one of his top donors. On Sunday, his home state newspaper, the Star-Ledger, provided an exhaustive history of Menendez’s two-decade relationship with the donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, concluding that “when Melgen acts, Menendez reacts.” And this morning, the Times is reporting new details about the specific actions Menendez has taken on behalf of his benefactor.

There’s no smoking gun in the Star-Ledger report, but it details several instances in which an official action by Menendez on Melgen’s behalf was followed by a hefty donation from Melgen to a Menendez-aligned campaign committee. All told, according to the paper, Melgen and his family members have given $50,000 to Menendez over the last two decades and far more to groups that have advanced Menendez’s political interests -- $700,000 last year to a super PAC designed to help Democratic incumbents who (like Menendez) were up for reelection in 2012, and over $100,000 last year to county Democratic organizations in New Jersey, which played a major role in turning out the vote for a ticket that Menendez was part of.

That’s on top of the free flights to the Dominican Republic that Melgen provided Menendez on several occasions; when they came to light recently, Menendez scrambled to reimburse Melgen for the $58,500 cost of using his private jet. Based on financial disclosure documents, that reimbursement represented between 32 and 87 percent of the senator’s net worth.

At the very least, this all amounts to one awful perception problem for Menendez. It’s now been reported that he called and met with federal officials to weigh in on Melgen’s behalf after he was accused of overbilling the government by $8.9 million for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. It’s been reported that Menendez prodded the State and Commerce Departments to force the Dominican government to honor a contract for port security with a Melgen-owned company – a contract valued at around $500 million. And, thanks to the latest reporting, it’s now known that Menendez just last month sought to dissuade the Homeland Security department from providing equipment for port inspections to the Dominican Republic, another move seemingly designed to protect Melgen’s business interests.

Menendez is adamant that he’s done nothing improper, that it’s entirely legitimate for him to act on behalf of anyone -- constituent, friend, donor – who seeks his help. Whether the ethics committee shares this view, and whether there are further damning revelations, won’t be known for a while. In terms of his political survival, the best thing Menendez has going for him is that he was just reelected last November and isn’t scheduled to face the voters for nearly six years. So even if the ethics committee ultimately comes down hard on him, there may still be time to recover.

But even then, this episode could leave a taint that inhibits the ultra-ambitious senator’s career trajectory. Will his fellow Senate Democrats really want to elevate him to a leadership post after this? What about his dreams of serving on his party’s national ticket (he was in the mix to be Al Gore’s running mate in 2000) or perhaps as secretary of state in a future administration? He could even lose his chairman’s gavel for good, if the ethics committee sides against him. So while Menendez may endure as a senator for years to come, that title could now represent his career ceiling.

It’s not entirely surprising that it’s come to this. Menendez’s rise in politics has been fueled in part by his ability to build and maintain relationships with wealthy, politically connected people like Melgen. His career, both in New Jersey and now on the national stage, has been dotted with accusations similar to those he now faces. In a 2005 profile of Menendez, who was then a House member angling for an appointment to the Senate (which he ultimately got), the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman wrote of the perception “that the congressman [is] willing to go to war for his friends' business interests.”

In particular, two previous episodes feel like preludes to the current controversy. The first came in the late 1990s, when Menendez moved against the mayor of his hometown, Union City, N.J. Menendez himself had held the mayor’s post until his election to Congress in 1992. That initial victory was one of several developments that allowed Menendez to seize control of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, the legendary political machine once headed by Frank “I am the law!” Hague. This was a significant development in modern New Jersey political history, shifting power within the HCDO out of Jersey City, its traditional epicenter, and to Menendez’s backyard in North Hudson. As a congressman in the ‘90s, Menendez paid close heed to developments in the county and his home city, aware that his control of the organization made him a heavyweight in state Democratic politics – and advanced his own chances of running statewide someday.

So when Union City’s mayor, another ambitious Democrat named Rudy Garcia, started causing trouble for Menendez and his allies, the congressman was quick to respond. Officially, the Menendez crowd accused Garcia of mismanaging the city’s finances, but close observers spied another motive: As mayor, Garcia had dismissed one of Menendez’s best friends, the head of one of the most politically powerful law firms in the state, as the city’s attorney. That lawyer, along with another Menendez ally, helped lead a recall drive. Outgunned – and under intense pressure from Democrats statewide, who feared the intraparty battle would hinder turnout in an area they depend on for big pluralities – Garcia resigned as mayor just before the November 2000 election. He and his team were effectively exiled from Hudson County politics; Menendez had delivered a message.

Then there’s the story of Glenn Cunningham, who made history as Jersey City’s first black mayor when he was elected in 2001. Around the same time, the Hudson County executive was snared by the feds in a corruption sting, leaving his office open. Cunningham, who succeeded a Republican (Bret Schundler) as mayor, saw it as his mission to restore Jersey City as the base of power within the HCDO. He and Menendez agreed on an interim pick for the vacant county executive’s post, but when it came to backing a candidate in the 2002 Democratic primary, they split. Menendez’s candidate won – big – cementing the congressman’s perch atop the county party.

But the war didn’t stop there. In the next state budget, aid to Jersey City was slashed by around 80 percent. Cunningham claimed it was retaliation orchestrated by Menendez, a charge the congressman denied. Cunningham then sought to strip the law firm of Menendez’s friend of its city contracts and to amplify his own power by running for the state Senate against a Menendez-backed slate of candidates. (Dual office-holding was then legal, and common, in New Jersey.) Cunningham won the primary, Menendez’s organization challenged the results in court (and lost), and the feud raged on … until Cunningham suffered a massive heart attack in May 2004 and died. His funeral at the city armory attracted more than 5,000 mourners, but word was sent by his widow that Menendez would not be welcome among them.

Viewed in the context of his career, Menendez’s relationship with Melgen feels like an extension of the way he’s always played politics. At best it exists in an unsightly but not illegal gray area; at worst he’s crossed a line and will pay with his career. What could be different this time is that he’s facing the judgment of the Senate ethics committee – something he never had to worry about when he was fighting to get ahead in Hudson County.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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