The FBI raided the office of Menendez’s friend and donor; it is not yet clear whether the New Jersey Democrat is a target of any investigations by the Justice Department or the Senate Ethics Committee.
Menendez Chief of Staff Danny O’Brien told NBC on Wednesday that the senator recently paid Melgen $58,000 as reimbursement for two trips on the doctor’s plane. O’Brien said Menendez’s staff discovered the error after an ethics complaint was filed by a New Jersey Republican official last November.
O’Brien said he was “chalking it up to an oversight.” A Menendez spokeswoman, who also spoke to NBC, added that the senator was not claiming the plane trips were a gift, which he would have needed pre-approval for from the Ethics Committee.
In addition, in cases where both the Justice Department and a congressional ethics panel might have interest in the same probe, the ethics panels usually step aside.
“Once the FBI gets involved and launches a criminal investigation, typically the ethics committee would stand aside and let law enforcement do its job,” Gross said.
Chris DeLacy, a partner at Holland & Knight, noted that one exception came in the case of ex-Sen. John Ensign, when the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics panel investigated the Nevada Republican at the same time. As CQ Roll Call has reported, Ensign resigned his seat after striking up an extramarital affair involving the wife of his aide Doug Hampton and a subsequent cover-up.
When senators accept gifts such as air travel under friendship provisions, DeLacy said, that friendship must pass muster and that there should be a history of reciprocity and mutual generosity. That can be hard to establish as far as plane travel goes, as most lawmakers don’t own their own jets.
“I always tell people, they’re talking about true friendship, not friendship in the Washington sense,” DeLacy said. The person giving the gift, for example, can’t then be reimbursed by his company for it.
The Ethics Committee has several options for disciplining lawmakers, according to Stan Brand of the Brand Law Group. It can advise the Senate to condemn, reprimand, censure or even expel one of its own. It usually makes its recommendations in a report, and sometimes the committee will issue letters of admonition.
The committee issued a three-page letter of admonition to former Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, after he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct charges stemming from an incident in which he allegedly solicited sex in an airport bathroom. It similarly scolded Sen. David Vitter, R-La., after he was implicated in a prostitution scandal but said the conduct occurred before his election to the Senate in 2004 and did not involve the “use of public office or status for improper purposes.” The panel also issued a letter to Sen. Tom Coburn last year for having improper contact with ex-Ensign aide Hampton during his first year off the Senate payroll.