Robert Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey and a longtime Democratic leader on Capitol Hill, is facing a multi-count federal indictment for various corrupt dealings with a wealthy ophthalmologist.
The charges against him are relatively simple for a political corruption case, but the controversy, conspiracy theories, and political wrangling swirling around him are considerably more complicated because Menendez is in an unusual position. He's a Democratic senator from a solidly blue state that's represented by a Republican governor, meaning the balance of power in the Senate could further tip in Mitch McConnell's favor should Menendez be forced from office. At the same time, he's out of step with his party on several foreign policy issues — most notably nuclear negotiations with Iran — that are salient right now.
So while what Menendez is alleged to have done has little to do with important public policy issues, the charges against him could have big implications for a range of issues with reverberations from Washington to Havana to Tehran.
1) What did Menendez allegedly do?
By the standards of money in politics stories, the basic criminal allegations against Menendez are almost comically simple. Federal prosecutors say he took a bunch of valuable gifts (hotel stays, flights on a private jet) from Dr. Salomon Melgen and in exchange did Melgen a bunch of favors (visas for girlfriends, help with a customs problem). If true, it's definitely corrupt. But it's distinctly petty corruption that has relatively little to do with any big policy questions.
2) Who is Robert Menendez?
Menendez is a veteran politician who's held a variety of political offices in northern New Jersey since his election as mayor of Union City in 1986. In 1993 he was first elected to the US House of Representatives, and from 1999 to 2006 he held leadership posts in the House caucus, serving as the highest-ranking Latino Democrat.
Menendez is somewhat unusual for being a Democrat of Cuban ancestry (there is a large Cuban-American population in northern New Jersey) — most Cuban-Americans are Republicans and most Latino Democrats are of Mexican or Puerto Rican origin. In 2005, then-incumbent New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine successfully ran for governor with Menendez's support. Upon assuming office in January 2006, Corzine appointed Menendez to replace him in the Senate. He was reelected by a 53-45 margin that November, a solid win that was nonetheless a pretty severe underperformance for an incumbent Democrat running in a blue state in a Democratic landslide year. In 2012, he was reelected comfortably.
3) Where does Robert Menendez stand on the issues?
On domestic issues Menendez is a pretty typical tristate-area Democrat, which is to say he's reliably liberal except at times when it comes to issues close to the heart of the financial services industry.
On foreign policy issues, by contrast, Menendez is a fairly typical Cuban-American politician — which is to say he's often closer to the GOP than to his fellow Democrats. Menendez was a vociferous opponent of Obama's deal to open relations with Cuba. He's an advocate of sanctions on Venezuela, a proponent of cracking down on the FMLN government in El Salvador*, and generally of an aggressive American posture to take on the Latin American left.
Menendez is also an Israel hawk. Earlier this year he was the lead Democratic author of a mostly Republican, AIPAC-endorsed bill that would have tightened sanctions on Iran and scuttled the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Though the Cuba issue and the Israel issue are not directly linked in a practical sense, there are ideological affinities between Cuba hawks and Israel hawks and institutional linkages between the Cuban-American National Foundation and AIPAC, as well as overlapping constituencies concentrated in South Florida and the New York City area.
4) Is Robert Menendez the victim of a liberal conspiracy?
Susan Ferrechio of the Washington Examiner wrote an article to this effect containing so little actual evidence that she couldn't quite bring herself to come out and say that this is what she's saying, so instead she loaded it down with innuendos. At the end she quotes Senator Lindsey Graham, also participating in innuendos:
"I don't know what happened," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. "But it doesn't smell right."
Josh Rogin of Bloomberg, a reliable channel for hawkish views on Capitol Hill, likewise tweeted:
Iran's regime jails American journalist, Obama administration indicts Democratic Senator. Both seeking leverage in nuke negotiations?— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) April 1, 2015
Perhaps someday the journalists indulging in these theories will produce some evidence to support them.
5) Is Robert Menendez the victim of a conservative smear campaign?
Well, he was, but they may have framed a guilty man, and Cuban intelligence may have been involved. Back before Menendez was a conservative hero for his bold stance against Obama's policy of appeasement, he was the villain of a fake story allegedly involving prostitutes and sex parties. As David Weigel wrote in July 2014 when the prostitutes story was collapsing:
Now that the entire Menendez scandal may have been concocted by Cubans, it's amazing to remember how the Daily Caller hyped this thing and how no one who worked on the story suffered any consequence. In November 2012, right before Menendez's easy re-election, the DC's Matt Boyle reported that "two women from the Dominican Republic told the Daily Caller that Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez paid them for sex earlier this year." He shared a reporting credit with Charles C. Johnson.Boyle followed up with the claim that "a high-level government official" in the DR was confirming the story of Menendez's "sex parties." (The source was not named.)
In December, Boyle moved to Breitbart.com, where he still works. The DC's Menendez beat went to executive editor David Martosko, a longtime conservative PR strategist who had once used a fake name to obtain information on animal rights activists. After a source created a website with Menendez allegations, Martosko wrote confidently that his magazine "reported in November that Menendez purchased the service of prostitutes in that Caribbean nation at a series of alcohol-fueled sex parties." No CYA words like "allegedly" in there! Martosko wrote that ABC News was responding with "radio silence" to the charge that it had known of and passed on the story; future stories, occasionally written in collaboration with Johnson, repeated the claims made by anonymous sources, and attempted to advance the narrative by asking women's groups if they'd call for Menendez to quit—you know, if the story was true. Other outlets tried to get at the story by asking Democrats to awkwardly respond to the rumors.
Weigel presciently noted at the time that the focus on the sex angle "drained attention away from Menendez's connection to a wealthy eye doctor who was being investigated by the feds." But the drainage did not last long! The wealthy eye doctor in question is, of course, Melgen, the man who is alleged to have bribed Menendez. Except while nailing Menendez used to be a conservative priority, now some conservatives are hinting that it's a liberal conspiracy.
6) What happens if Menendez resigns?
"US Sen. Robert Menendez now begins a fight for his political life that could last for years," writes the Newark Star-Ledger editorial board. "New Jersey would be better off if he would resign and conduct that battle on his own time."
But because of the way filling Senate vacancies works, it's not easy for anyone who cares about issues and policy to be so high-minded about this. New Jersey's current governor, Chris Christie, is a Republican. If Menendez resigns, Christie will appoint his successor (possibly he would even appoint Jeffrey Chiesa, who was tapped to fill an earlier New Jersey Senate vacancy for what is now Cory Booker's seat), which will make it that much harder for the Obama administration to get nominees confirmed and advance other priorities. Since most New Jersey residents are Democrats, they might prefer to be represented by a compromised Democrat than by a Christie appointee.
An added wrinkle to this is that unlike most states, New Jersey holds general elections in odd-numbered years. Consequently, a Menendez replacement would be replaced by a special election in November 2015 rather than serving an additional year until the 2016 midterms. That might make a resignation scenario more palatable to Democrats.
A twist within the wrinkle is that a special election will be held in November 2015 only if the resignation happens sooner than 30 days before the June 2, 2015, primaries. So a quick Menendez resignation has different implications than a slow one does.
7) Is it just me, or is New Jersey super-corrupt?
It's not just you. Christie himself is the subject of a federal investigation that's sent subpoenas flying around the state. Senator Robert Toricelli was forced from office in 2002 after revelations that he received improper gifts from a supporter. Former Governor Jim McGreevey was also forced from office following revelations that he had carried on a clandestine relationship with a male staffer who was threatening to sue him for sexual harassment. And former Governor and Senator Jon Corzine got in hot water with federal financial regulators over his improper handling of the fallout of the collapse of a hedge fund he was running.
Indeed, way back in 2006 the New York Times endorsed Menendez's reelection with the caveat that "Menendez has a history of ethical lapses that have been all too common for Democratic officials in New Jersey, especially for those, like him, who continue to take an active part in local party politics."
On the other hand, some of this can be misleading. New Jersey's proximity to the gigantic New York media hub means New Jersey stories get disproportionate attention. Corzine's legal problems contribute to the sense that New Jersey is corrupt, but don't really have anything to do with political corruption. McGreevey's resignation was more about political embarrassment than legal wrongdoing.
As Harry Enten points out, New Jersey is only 17th in corruption convictions per capita. Survey-based measures of corruption do register it as the third most corrupt state (behind Kentucky and Illinois), though it's considered best in the nation in terms of tough anti-corruption rules.
Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to the ruling party in El Salvador as Sandinistas. The Sandinistas are an ideologically similar party that is currently governing in Nicaragua.