Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) contacted the Department of Homeland Security last month to discourage a proposal in which the United States government would provide the Dominican Republic with equipment for port security. According to the New York Times, the senator did so in an effort to protect the interests of Boarder Support Services, a private company run by controversial donor Dr. Salomon Melgen.
The New York Times reports:
Sen. Robert Menendez sought to discourage any plan by the United States government to donate port security equipment to the Dominican Republic, citing concern that the advanced screening gear might undermine efforts by a private company—run by a major campaign contributor and friend of his—to do the work.
The intervention with the Department of Homeland Security last month came even though Mr. Menendez has publicly chastised the Obama administration for not doing more to combat the surging drug traffic moving through Dominican ports.
And it came shortly after the senator’s friend, Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, arranged to meet with a senior State Department official, accompanied by a former aide to Mr. Menendez, in a related push to protect the port security contract, which is worth as much as $500 million over 20 years.
According to emails obtained by the New York Times, a Menendez aide inquired about the possibility of the U.S. donating "additional port security equipment" to the country.
The senator’s office did not explicitly mention Melgen or Boarder Support Services, but they did suggest an "unnamed private contractor" would be better equipped to handle the security. The aide claimed that if the Dominican government were in charge of the port, there was potential that they would face "pressure from criminal elements."
"Apparently there are some efforts by individuals who do not want the increased security" in the Dominican Republic, the e-mail from Mr. Menendez’s office said.
The emails noted U.S. equipment might be compromised to "intentionally limit" its use in order to allow drugs or other contraband to enter the U.S. Menendez was reportedly "concerned that the [Customs and Border Patrol] equipment will be used for this ulterior motive."
Melgen similarly spoke with government officials, telling State Department administrators that Boarder Support Services has a legally binding contract. However, the New York Times notes that the Dominican customs agency disputes this. Both Menendez and Melgen’s arguments "contradicted the official position of the Dominican agency that oversees port security," because "Dr. Melgen’s contract wrongly leaves screening in the hands of a private company and not a state agency."
The Senate Ethics Committee is currently investigating Menendez for other instances involving Dr. Melgen. Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, where he was asked if his colleague should "retain his chairmanship" as he faces questions from the ethics committee. Durbin noted:
Well, Sen. Menendez has given us assurance that there is no substance to these charges. It's being looked at by the ethics committee and of course I can't comment beyond that.
Some have questioned whether or not the senator should be removed from his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as Menendez’s troubles deepen. An editorial in the New York Times suggested:
Instead of trying to protect Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, needs to remove his gavel, at least pending credible resolution by the Senate Ethics Committee of the swirling accusations of misconduct.
These new revelations have a greater significance than Menendez’s other woes, given his position as chairman. The port security contract "involved a foreign policy concern: Curbing the flow of cocaine to the United States from the Dominican Republic."
Melgen reportedly learned of the U.S.’s intention to donate equipment to the Dominican Republic. A spokesman for the Dominican customs agency told the New York Times they have not received equipment from the U.S.
He said he did not know why the United States government had failed to deliver more X-ray machines—or whether Dr. Melgen or Mr. Menendez played a role.
"The equipment donated to Caucedo was the first installment of a project to check containers. It was going to continue. Unfortunately, it did not continue," Mr. Fortunato said. "The second phase was for Haina. It has not been completed."
Menendez has repeatedly denied the possibility of wrongdoing. Menendez told Univision’s Lourdes Meluza he has never been "bought" in an interview, which aired Sunday:
Nobody has bought me, No. 1. Never, in 20 years that I have been in Congress, never has this been suggested that this has been possible. Never in 40 years of public life.