Questions about the cozy relationship between Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Florida investor and ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen continue to grow, with the New York Times editorial board on Friday calling for Menendez to step down as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at least until the accusations are resolved.
The charges against Menendez are well known at this point. Roll Call reported that Menendez directly or indirectly received $833,000 in campaign gifts from Melgen and his business, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, and he took $58,500 worth of trips on Melgen’s private jet that went unreported for years, all while advocating for Melgen in Medicare payment disputes and a Dominican Republic port security deal.
According to the Miami Herald, the same ethical cloud is threatening to implicate Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). While chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ros-Lehtinen also pushed the Dominican Republic to institute port security measures that netted a company Melgen is an investor in, ICSSI, a contract worth up to $500 million. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen received $9,800—near the legal maximum—from Melgen and his wife during the 2012 campaign.
Given that the Miami Herald reports that Melgen has the reputation of being a “transactional” donor who expects something in return for his campaign contributions, it’s worth looking through his gifts to other elected officials.
(Note: these numbers aggregate contributions to candidates' campaign committees and leadership PACs into one total, using data from the Center for Responsive Politics)
It remains to be seen whether any of these other officials ever intervened on Melgen’s behalf, but it’s clear that at least Melgen believed he had the allegiances of many in Washington.
Federal officials have said that Melgen frequently mentioned his friendship with Menendez and other members of Congress during investigations of his medical practice, saying things like “Menendez is a good friend of mine, and he knows I never did anything wrong.” He would also intimidate other doctors critical of his medical techniques with threats of federal audits arranged by his “Washington friends.”
In response to allegations of impropriety, Menendez has said that “nobody has bought me.” It may end up true that no elected official is found guilty of wrongdoing, but the whole affair—and the fact that many would find it conceivable that a major campaign donor could set up government audits to punish his enemies—shows how broken the campaign finance system is.
The controversy surrounding Salomon Melgen illustrates more than ever the need for Fair Elections reform so that members of Congress and other officials can raise funds to run their campaigns without needing to rely on a few big-ticket donors who may be expecting something in return.