The bribery trial of senior New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez has it all.
Menendez is facing charges that he sold his US Senate office to a Palm Beach, Fla., eye doctor, his co-defendant Salomon Melgen, for bribes in the form of private jets stocked with Menendez’s favorite beverages, a private villa at one of the lushest resorts in the Caribbean, and a Paris hotel suite for which Melgen spent 650,000 American Express points.
The two men met in 1993 when Melgen contributed $500 to Menendez’s first House re-election campaign at a South Florida fundraiser — his first political contribution. In the decades since, Melgen became a major high-dollar Democratic donor, and when Menendez was appointed to the Senate in 2006, they already had an extraordinarily close relationship.
That relationship allowed Menendez to enjoy a lifestyle far beyond his legitimate income of $174,000. It was a life of luxury funded by one of the largest Medicare frauds in history, a $105 million scheme for which Melgen has already been convicted on 67 counts of fraud in a separate federal trial in Florida.
In return, Menendez allegedly got Melgen visas for his girlfriends, pressured the State Department to deliver a Dominican port-security contract and pressed the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to approve the massive Medicare overbilling scheme that kept the good times rolling.
One of the girlfriends, Rosiell Polanco, was a 22-year-old model when she dated Melgen, who is married and 35 years her senior. She testified that she and her younger sister had been denied visas before Menendez’s intervention. Menendez e-mailed his staff: “Call ambassador ASAP.” They were re-interviewed and approved.
Multiple State Department and Customs and Border Protection officials testified that Menendez demanded they pressure the Dominican government to reinstate a defunct port-security contract that Melgen had purchased — which would have made the doctor hundreds of millions of dollars.
A former Medicare official, Dr. Louis Jacques, testified that a Menendez staff member pressured him to allow Melgen to overbill. Melgen was dividing single-dose vials of an injectable drug called Lucentis to use on multiple patients, then billing Medicare for a full $2,000 dose for each patient.
“The issue is very important to the senator,” Dr. Jacques recalled the staffer telling him. “Bad medicine is not illegal. Medicare should pay these claims.” Dr. Jacques was so shaken that he remembers having to stand up to clear his head.
Former Sen. Tom Harkin, then chairman of the committee that oversees Medicare, testified that he took a meeting with Melgen and Menendez. Harkin staffer Jenelle Krishnamoorthy testified that this was the only time she met with a non-constituent on a Medicare billing dispute in 10 years as a Senate worker. Harkin’s office concluded they should take no action.
Afterwards, Menendez took his pro-Melgen campaign to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
This coming week, the jury is expected to hear that Reid “reached out to the White House deputy chief of staff, informing her that Menendez was upset,” according to the government’s brief. Reid later hosted Menendez and then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in his US Capitol office, where Menendez pressured her to approve the overbilling.
The defense does not dispute the core facts of the case. They admit that Menendez had ready access to the private jets and resorts paid for by Melgen. They admit Menendez got visas for the girlfriends, intervened on the port-security contract and demanded HHS allow Melgen to keep overbilling Medicare. But they are innocent, the defense says, because the government is trying to criminalize friendship.
Call it the Biz Markie defense: like the rapper says, he’s just a friend.
Sometimes a friend gives a senator access to the private jet. And a friend lets a senator use a luxury resort villa and gives the senator hundreds of thousands of American Express points. And what senator wouldn’t try to get his friend’s many supermodel girlfriends into the country? Or steer his friend — an eye doctor with no security background — a massive port-security contract? Or try to get him off the hook for the Medicare fraud that keeps both of them in the style to which they’ve grown accustomed?
Melgen’s defense counsel Kirk Ogrosky even racialized the Biz Markie defense, arguing Melgen and Menendez were “part of a fellowship of Hispanic-Americans” and accusing the Department of Justice — under President Barack Obama — of an “attack on that whole group.”
Should friendship be a defense to bribery? Does the corruption of a public official somehow become acceptable if the official befriends the person to whom he sells his office?
“The case against Menendez as a legal matter doesn’t look close, it looks overwhelming,” MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent Ari Melber accurately observed. “If a politician can take the kind of gifts that Menendez has already taken and be acquitted, then you have to wonder if there’s something wrong with all of these corruption laws in the first place.”
Perhaps our corruption laws really have become so weak that Menendez could walk when the trial finally comes to an end around Thanksgiving. But his breach of the public trust is so severe that if the Senate ethics committee is worthy of its name, he will be expelled from the Senate regardless of the verdict.
Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment