In the wake of an FBI raid on the office of a friend and political donor, Sen. Robert Menendez aggressively countered news reports Wednesday linking him to an alleged travel and prostitution scandal. And 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, on the cusp of assuming the Senate Foreign Relations chairmanship and fresh off winning a second full term in November, acknowledged in a statement that he took three flights on the private plane of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor whose office was searched by the FBI. But Menendez said all of the trips “have been paid for and reported appropriately.”
The Senate Ethics Committee would not comment on whether Menendez is under investigation.
The Miami Herald, which first disclosed the FBI raid, reported that law enforcement may be investigating allegations that Menendez traveled to the Dominican Republic and engaged in trysts with prostitutes.
The Daily Caller website reported in November that anonymous Dominican prostitutes said Menendez had been a client.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington last July requested that the FBI and Justice Department investigate Menendez after a whistle-blower identified as Peter Williams alleged that the lawmaker engaged in sex tourism. Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director, has raised questions about the tipster’s credibility, saying he refused to meet in person to discuss the matter.
“Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false,” Menendez’s office said in a statement released Wednesday.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, passed after the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal, made it more difficult and more costly for members of Congress to travel on personal or corporate aircraft. A senator who travels on a private plane for his campaign would need to reimburse the owner at the charter rate, ethics legal experts said.
However, when senators fly on behalf of party committees, as Menendez may have done as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, then they may reimburse the cost of a first-class ticket.
Senators may also accept travel on a plane owned by a personal friend, so long as the person is not a lobbyist, and report the travel as a gift on disclosure forms. A gift worth more than $250 also requires approval of the Ethics Committee and disclosure by the senator, notes Ken Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Menendez does not appear to have reported such gifts on his disclosure documents in recent years.
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.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.