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Menendez’s chief of staff sent an email to some of his boss’s closest supporters Wednesday that supplies talking points to combat news reports about the travel and ethics scandal. It was part of a broader public relations offensive to bolster Menendez’s fortunes.
The memo, apparently sent from a personal email address of Chief of Staff Danny O’Brien, encourages Menendez supporters to downplay two private jet rides the senator took two years ago and reimbursed last month. Menendez has acknowledged that he traveled on an aircraft belonging to Melgen.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., ranking member of the Ethics Committee, told The Washington Post the panel was “aware” of the media reports. The Senate’s code of conduct and the ethics rules prepared by the committee during the last Congress state that lawmakers “may not receive compensation from any source because of improper influence exerted from their position as a Member, officer, or employee of the Senate.” Nor can they “solicit or receive compensation for representing another person or entity before a government agency in a manner in which the U.S. government has an interest.”
Asked about the matter Thursday, Isakson said he could not comment and referred CQ Roll Call to prior statements.
In a criminal case, the evidence needed to prove a quid pro quo scheme would be stringent — and the long-standing friendship between the two men would further complicate matters. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a fellow New Jersey Democrat, also declined to comment on the substance of the allegations Thursday.
Bribery cases are notoriously hard to build. The Supreme Court several years ago said the “honest services” statute often used by prosecutors in corruption cases was unconstitutionally vague. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was prosecuted for filing false financial disclosure forms, not for engaging in a quid pro quo scheme. Even so, the case later fell apart after it became clear prosecutors had not shared evidence with the defense, and Stevens’ verdict was vacated.
Legal experts told CQ Roll Call it wouldn’t be enough for two seemingly related events to occur one after the other — there would have to be evidence of intent.
“If you don’t have someone wearing a wire, you’re going to have to do it by having people who were close to them tell you the story, and they may or may not be credible,” Peter Zeidenberg of DLA Piper said. “It’s a very tough standard, and [these cases] are hard to prove, particularly when you’ve got a relationship.”
Kate Ackley contributed to this report.