Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D., N.J.) ethical difficulties have begun to register with his constituents as investigations into his behavior intensify.
"The ethics committee wants to resolve this quickly, after a full and thorough investigation," said Robert Walker, former chief counsel and staff director for the Senate and House ethics committees.
Resolving the inquiry into Menendez expediently is "for the public’s interest and the member’s interest" said Walker, an attorney in Wiley Rein’s Election Law and Government Ethics Practice in Washington, D.C. He said it could take a few months before the committee concludes its probe.
A lengthy investigation could damage further Menendez's standing in the state. A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday showed Menendez’s approval rating has already fallen 15 points in just one month, dropping from 51 percent to 36 percent.
Walker said the seriousness of the alleged ethics violations relate to the receipt of the flights Menendez took on controversial Democratic donor Dr. Salomon Melgen’s private jet. "These gifts of flights, the value was significant. They were tens of thousands of dollars, and his acceptance of them was a gift," he said.
The flights, which Menendez did not acknowledge until the beginning of this year, are especially significant given the dense web of connections between Menendez and Melgen. The senator urged the United States to intervene on behalf of Melgen’s port security company regarding a contract dispute worth up to $1 billion; Menendez contacted federal officials on behalf of Melgen regarding a Medicare audit; and Melgen has donated not only to Menendez’s election campaigns but also to his defense fund.
Menendez’s failure to disclose the flights as required by Senate rules is a serious issue for the senator, according to Walker.
The committee will be looking to determine if there was "the knowing and willful failure to disclose," Walker said. If the committee finds that Menendez knowingly and willingly failed to disclose the flights, it is a felony.
Menendez has claimed that the flights "fell through the cracks."
When asked if Menendez’s reimbursement for the flights on Melgen’s plane will matter, Walker said, "It depends." He said his payment for the flights two years after the fact will not matter if he deliberately did not disclose them.
The ethics committee could also consider if there is some "linkage to the gifts of flights" and Menendez’s interventions on behalf of Melgen. "When this intervention occurred [and] the level of intervention and the specific intervention for this friend," could be questioned, according to Walker.
"Was the intervention consistent with his previous expressions of policy?" Walker said is another question for the ethics committee.
Menedez’s name has surfaced in other investigations in his home state of New Jersey in the past. Those investigations did not garner the media attention the current ethics probe has.
"The past allegations have been serious," said Rob Eichmann, elected member of the New Jersey Republican State Committee and the editor of Conservative New Jersey. "His entire career has been wheeling, dealing, shenanigans and questionable ethical decisions."
Menendez faced a Justice Department probe into property he rented to the North Hudson Community Action Corporation in Union County, N.J. He collected more than $300,000 in rent from the group, and as a congressman he helped them secure federal funding. He also helped the agency gain a designation as a Federally Qualified Health Center that made North Hudson eligible for federal health care grants and expanded Medicare and Medicaid payments, according to reports.
Menendez claimed to have obtained verbal clearance by the House Ethics Committee before the lease was signed. The lawyer for the committee said she did not remember Mr. Menendez asking her about the deal but did not dispute that she might have cleared it.
The federal probe into Menendez’s rental property in Union County was closed in 2011. Menendez’s controversial donor Melgen made contributions to Union County in the last election cycle.
Menendez’s name also surfaced in the long-running federal probe into the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), which found the school was wrought with health care fraud, undue political influence at the school, and numerous instances of no-bid contracts and abuse of taxpayer funds.
Lawmakers, including Menendez, were described as using the school as their own hiring ground. "Top university officials used a ranking system for job applicants based on the status of political powerbrokers who recommended them," a report issued by the State of New Jersey Committee of Investigation. "An applicant with a number ‘1’ following his/her name would get more time and attention from UMDNJ’s human resources department."
Resumes submitted by Menendez received a 1. Menendez denied he knew about the rating system.
The office of Senator Menendez had no comment.