Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) has been indicted on fourteen counts of conspiracy, bribery, fraud, and false statements pertaining to his relationship with wealthy opthalmologist Salomon Melgen and his Florida corporations. At first glance, this case appears to be a straightforward case of a politician accepting money to use his influence for the benefit of an associate. However, this particular case has huge ramifications for politics and money. In fact, every major political donor in this country – including the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, and Thomas Steyer – must watch this case intently and hope Senator Menendez is found “not guilty”. People who want to curb the influence of money in politics should hope Senator Menendez is found “guilty”.
It must stated that several of the charges that did make the news accuse Senator Menendez and Dr. Melgen of unsavory behavior such as immigration favors to allow young “models” from foreign countries into the United States and to accompany the defendents on illegally-provided private jets to places such as the Dominican Republic. The financial charges include Senator Menendez exerting his influence to try and absolve Dr. Melgen and his companies of $9 million of Medicare fraud and
The key to this case and the influence of money on government is the timing, size, and questionable independence of Dr. Melgen’s contributions totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Senator Menendez’s political campaign through Super PACs – his re-election funds which must, by law, operate separately from Senator Menendez’s re-election campaign.
The Department of Justice contends there is a correlation between the timing of Dr. Melgen’s contributions and the services performed by Senator Menendez. The 68-page indictment also details how Senator Menendez and his staff directed funds to a 2012 re-election Super PAC by instructing Dr. Melgen to make his donations to the account of “New Jersey Democratic State Committee Victory Federal” with a limit of $10,000 per individual. Dr. Melgen gathered several family members, gave them money, and they all wrote $10,000 checks with the check memo line filled with a crossed-out “(MFS) Menendez Contribution”. There were several other similar transfers of money and contributions to various Menendez political interests.
The most significant financial accusation in the indictment was $600,000 given by Dr. Melgen and his corporations to “Majority PAC” (a Super PAC to keep a Democratic majority in the Senate). The $600,000 was earmarked for the “New Jersey Senate Race”. Senator Menendez was in the only U.S. Senate race in New Jersey in 2012 so he was the only beneficiary of the $600,000.
This case is important for two reasons. First, if guilty, it shows a candidate can direct the activity within a Super PAC and, second, the candidate – as a beneficiary of an “independent” Super PAC – can be corrupted and perform favors for contributors to Super PACs.
A “guilty” decision would then completely invalidate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s swing vote and assertion about unlimited contributions, “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption”. A “guilty” decision would expose the sham of independence and the belief unlimited contributions do not have a corrupting influence on democracy. This case provides a basis for the judicial system to reconsider the basis of the opinions rendered in Citizens United and McCutcheon.
The case with Senator Menendez and Dr. Melgen may also, at the very least, call an elected official’s actions and votes into question to assure they are independent from their (and their PAC’s) donors. This might be illustrated in a hypothetical case of Scott Walker and the carbon interests of the Koch brothers, If the Koch brothers contributed to Scott Walker (and his PACs) and Walker took actions against established climate science that benefitted the Koch brothers, then would the Menendez case serve as a precedent to examine Walker’s and the Koch brothers’ relationship for financial influence and political corruption? Could a “guilty” verdict for Menendez and Dr. Melgen warn wealthy donors and corporate donors to “back off” from even the hint of political influence or else face the same scrutiny and disclosure as the Menendez case provides?
It is evident the lines between money, politicians, and corruption are blurred. Ted Cruz’s close friend is managing three of Cruz’s four Super PACs. Jeb Bush is legally routing campaign contributions to his Super PAC while he is still an undeclared candidate for President. Hillary Clinton’s financial affairs related to her campaign aren’t passing the “smell test” even though they operate legally.
So, Justice Kennedy, “independent” money is not “independent” and it does corrupt government. This is why Senator Menendez must be found “guilty”. This is why the Koch brothers want this Democrat to win.