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Menendez Watch

Report: Controversial Menendez donor tied to Reid, Obama

Melgen, Obama / AP
• March 20, 2013 10:59 am

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A new report ties controversial Democratic donor Dr. Salomon Melgen to President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

According to Politico:

Salomon Melgen had a knack for going straight to the top.

He posed for pictures with President Barack Obama, flew Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his private jet and sought advice on a port security deal from an ex-CIA agent who helped lead the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Politico has learned. …

Melgen keeps an enviable collection of photos with politicians — including one of him golfing with Bill Clinton — and bragged of using his plane to transport the rapper Pitbull to a Super PAC fundraiser at the Democratic National Convention last summer, according to sources who know him.

Melgen reportedly "briefly schmoozed Obama at a 2010 fundraiser" and flew Reid on his company’s private plane. Reid’s office confirmed to Politico that the senator took the trip, which occurred "last summer to Boston and back for a Majority PAC event," and noted that it was "in full compliance with FEC rules and fully paid for."

It has been previously reported that the Florida doctor "donated $700,000 last year to Majority PAC, which spent $582,500 supporting Menendez’s 2012 reelection campaign—which Menendez won by 18 percentage points."

Melgen has been tied to Sens. Chris Dodd and Amy Klobuchar, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and of course Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.). The Politico article reiterates an increasingly recurrent portrayal of Dr. Melgen as an individual who is adept at inserting himself in top political circles.

The Washington Post published a profile of Menendez on Sunday that described him as an "unusual breed of politician," largely because of his modest upbringing. It argued the New Jersey Democrat forged relationships with elite donors, such as Melgen, out of necessity.

The Washington Post reports:

"Bob is probably one of the poorest guys in the Senate," said Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), his longtime friend and confidant. "He has to scrap and scrape and claw and talk to people to try to raise that money. . . . It makes you vulnerable to something going on."

Now Menendez’s relationship with one of his wealthy patrons has drawn the scrutiny of the Senate Ethics Committee and a federal grand jury in Miami, which, according to three people familiar with the investigation, is examining his role in advocating for Melgen’s business interests.

Until Menendez’s relations with Melgen drew the attention of investigators, the senator’s influence in Washington had been growing.

He had proved his bona fides as a fundraising powerhouse for Senate Democrats and a hero to Hispanic activists. He ascended last month to the coveted chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and emerged as a prominent player in one of the year’s biggest legislative battles when he joined bipartisan talks over a possible landmark law to remake the U.S. immigration system.

Menendez has been involved in politics since he was 19 years old but says he is still uncomfortable fundraising.

"For me, raising money to fund a campaign is contrary to what I learned growing up in life, which is you work for everything and you ask for nothing," he said, noting that he has for years supported public financing of campaigns and other changes to let lawmakers focus on their work. "But that’s a reality for anybody who runs for office who isn’t personally wealthy."

The article portrays the senator as someone ill at ease with the flash and wealth that often surrounds politicians. Recounting a 2010 event hosted by Melgen, the Post describes Menendez as a bit of a wallflower who was "the center of attention but still somehow out of place" amongst the elite Dominicans and American entrepreneurs. Someone who was "with them," but not "really of them."

Yet Menendez is known as a "highly effective" fundraiser. "As chairman of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, he raised $129.5 million for the midterm election of 2010, an impressive sum even by the standards of Washington," the New York Times noted.

Menendez faces allegations that he has intervened on behalf of Melgen in unethical ways. The Senate Ethics Committee and a federal grand jury in Miami have been investigating the relationship, as the Post article notes.

Melgen has been a prolific campaign donor, giving more than $700,000 to Menendez and other Senate Democrats ahead of last year’s election. He has also provided the senator with free flights on his private jet and hospitality at his Dominican vacation home, according to people familiar with their relationship. Menendez has sought to apply pressure on the Dominican government to enforce a contract with Melgen’s port security company and has interceded with federal health-care officials after they said Melgen had overbilled the federal Medicare program for treatment at his eye clinic.

Roll Call reported that Melgen’s contributions to Menendez are actually closer to $1 million, and that Menendez may have also asked Melgen to contribute to four local Democratic committees.

Relationships with financial donors have long been a point of controversy for the senator. He has been tied in recent months to at least six instances that have been seen as dubious.

Menendez advocated for legislation that would have been beneficial to Gaseous Fuel Systems Corp., a company in which Melgen holds stock, in addition to accepting flights on Melgen’s private plane, intervening in the Dominican port deal, and contacting federal officials about an $8.9 million audit of the doctor.

Additionally, "on the very same day Menendez interceded with Obama administration officials on the ports deal [involving Melgen…] he also went to bat for another company involving a heavily disputed Dominican road-building contract." The senator urged the U.S. government to "pressure the Dominican government" to pay a $42.5 million arbitration award. A Menendez contributor is the president of the company’s only U.S. investor.

As the Free Beacon reported, Menendez once attempted to block the merger of media companies that could have harmed his own stock and financially hurt a campaign donor.