What exactly does political corruption look like?

New Jersey's senior U.S. senator, Bob Menendez, is on trial on public corruption charges just a few PATH train stops away in Newark. It's a trial that says a lot about our expectations for public officials.
New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator, Bob Menendez, is on trial on public corruption charges just a few PATH train stops away in Newark. It’s a trial that says a lot about our expectations for public officials. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Everyone’s got problems, but not everyone’s problem-solver is a U.S. senator.

Let’s say your problem involves your multimillion-dollar cargo screening contract in the Dominican Republic. You hear that the U.S. government might give free scanners to the Dominicans, threatening your business. Do you throw up your hands that the U.S. government’s security efforts are hurting your business? If you’re Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, you call in a chit from a friend in high places.

New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator, Bob Menendez, a Democrat, is that friend, and he’s on trial on public corruption charges just a few PATH train stops away in Newark. Sound familiar? Maybe it reminds you of the tit-for-tat underbelly of New York State government exposed in the trials of former Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate majority leader Dean Skelos, previously two of the three most powerful men in New York state government.

Yet both those convictions were reversed and sent back for new trials this year thanks to a 2016 Supreme Court decision: federal prosecutors, the decision found, were using too big a net to snare politicians using public offices to get personal favors. That ruling in the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell hangs over the Menendez trial, the latest referendum on how outrageously self-serving politicians and their donors are allowed to be.

Building a case

Prosecutors in Newark allege that Melgen gave the senator juicy perks like use of a private jet and three nights in a five-star Parisian hotel, plus over $750,000 to entities supporting his reelection efforts. In return, the prosecution argues that Menendez helped Melgen with business deals and favors. At trial, the alleged Dominican and Ukrainian female friends of Melgen testified that they had a surprisingly easy time getting visas after senatorial intervention.

The month-old trial has featured such tabloid-worthy details, but last week prosecutors began the crucial work of sketching out the timing of calls, meetings, and deliverables that they hope will be sufficient to meet the Supreme Court’s newly higher bar for public corruption: carefully described “official acts” from Menendez to repay Melgen’s largess.

The senator argues he and Melgen, who has already been convicted in a health care fraud case, are just longstanding friends.

That friendship was on full display Thursday. What else would you call the Jan. 11, 2013 emails that went from Menendez’s office to a Customs and Border Protection official about the potential gift to the DR of free government scanners? The Menendez staffer wanted to know more about these scanners, and for CBP to “hold off” on their delivery.

“I did find the request to be somewhat odd,” the CBP official testified Thursday. Why would a U.S. senator want to abruptly halt a shipment of security equipment that CBP had deemed beneficial?

Well, the prosecution entered into evidence a receipt from the Banyan Golf Club in West Palm Beach dated Jan. 10, 2013. The receipt was signed by “Dr. Melgen,” who owned a company that made rival scanners, and it listed Menendez as the businessman’s guest.

Criminal corruption or business as usual?

Will emails and timelines like this be enough to convict Menendez? Regardless, the trial already has cast another spotlight on the swirling vortex of “asks” and “liaisons” and “governmental operations” and neverending stream of campaign fundraising paired with little perks that you and I don’t get when we help someone out at work. In other words, the eternal swamp that stretches from DC to New York, where it’s just a touch over business as usual to be caught in a $4 million kickback scheme, as Silver was, or convicted for getting no-show work for your son, like Skelos.

Like pornography, which another judge said you know when you see it, you might say this whole thing really smells. The federal law could be changed to give prosecutors a bigger net in these cases, to make it clear that what insiders call routine politics isn’t good government. But good luck legislating against the system of open palm and scratched back.

For now, it’s accountability on a case-by-case basis, with the more brazen politicians sitting through trials in which juries adjudicate whether they went too far. Menendez was quiet in the courtroom last week, but hours later he ditched his suit for a polo shirt at Newark Airport for a “fact-finding” trip to hurricane-hit Puerto Rico before his trial resumes Monday.

For this Caribbean venture, at least, he flew commercial.