Sen. Bob Menendez's (D., N.J.) campaign chairman works simultaneously as a lobbyist for the government of Qatar, raising concerns among some ethics experts about potential conflicts of interest.
Michael Soliman, a longtime aide and adviser to Menendez, has in recent years lobbied the senator and other members of Congress on behalf of the Qatari government, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Friday.
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Since 2015, Soliman has arranged meetings with members of Congress and various Qatari officials, including the ambassador to Washington, foreign affairs minister, and attorney general, according to records filed with the Justice Department by Mercury Public Affairs, the international consulting and lobbying firm where Soliman is a partner.
He joined the firm after running Menendez's successful 2012 reelection campaign. Previously, he was the senator's state director, for which he was paid about $71,500 in his last full year.
The Qatari Embassy in Washington first signed a contract with Mercury in 2015 for a rate of $155,000 a month. Since then, the parties have renewed the contract for at least $100,000 a month, records show.
Soliman, who has raised issues important to the U.S.-Qatar relationship with lawmakers, is not breaking the law by working on the Menendez campaign while lobbying for Qatar. However, some ethics experts have said the arrangement poses possible conflicts of interest, particularly because Menendez is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez could also become the chairman of the committee if Democrats retake control of the Senate after the midterm elections in November—and if the senator defeats Republican Bob Hugin in his reelection bid.
"There is a blurring of lines between responsibility to the candidate and responsibility to their client," Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit watchdog in Washington, told the Inquirer. "Very little of that is a responsibility to the public."
"It raises some of the same concerns that also led us to prohibit foreign campaign spending," said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
A spokesperson for the Menendez campaign said Soliman has been a "trusted political adviser to the senator for more than a decade, but neither he, nor any lobbyist, has influenced how the senator speaks to representatives of any government in advocating for the foreign policy and national security interests of both the United States and our allies."
Soliman also released a statement to the Inquirer and Daily News.
"[I have] always been fully transparent, above board, and properly disclosed; this is all part of the public record," he said. But after questions from the newspapers, he added that, "out of an overabundance of caution," he would not "directly or indirectly lobby the senator or his staff on behalf of any client for the duration of the campaign."
Soliman has discussed legislation with Menendez's chief of staff and asked Foreign Relations Committee staff about the senator's views on various Middle East policy issues, records show. In May, Soliman tried to arrange a meeting between Menendez and the Qatari ambassador; according to a spokesman for the senator, Soliman did not attend the meeting.
The Inquirer noted that, in public statements, Menendez has criticized Qatar for exploiting workers as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup and called for Washington to address human trafficking in the small Persian Gulf country.
Menendez escaped conviction in a six-week federal corruption trial last fall that ended in a mistrial. Still, the Senate Ethics Committee admonished him for violating federal law by letting gifts go unreported.