Menendez Should Ignore Grand Jury 'Distraction,' Expert Says

Largest New Jersey newspaper says senator should lose coveted chairmanship.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez wouldn't be the first to survive the taint of prostitution and ethics scandals.
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The Newark Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey, has called for Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez to step down from his post as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman after news broke that a federal grand jury in Miami is looking into his relationship with donor Salomon Melgen, an eye doctor in Florida.

The Senate Ethics Committee is also digging into a series of accusations.

"With reluctance, we urge him to surrender his gavel, at least until this investigation is complete. If he refuses to do so, we urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to remove him. This committee's work is too important to put at risk," the editorial board wrote.

Menendez faces scrutiny for hitching rides to the Dominican Republic on Melgen's private jet and then forgetting to reimburse Melgen until after the trips caught the media's attention and public ire. Menendez's relationship with Melgen appears complicated with evidence that in more than once instance, Menendez acted on Melgen's behalf. First by asking the government to tighten port security in the Dominican Republic, which would have enacted a contract that benefited Melgen's company. The contract was never enforced, but the editorial board says that it was "worth a fortune to Melgen even though he had no experience in the field."

[RELATED: Federal Grand Jury Eyes Menendez]

And Menendez also contacted individuals who asserted that Melgen was overpaid $9 million by Medicare for services he provided at his medical practice.

"Menendez's actions would be illegal only if they were explicitly linked to benefits Melgen provided, and no evidence of that has emerged. But at a minimum, it was bad judgement for Menendez to use his political muscle like this on behalf of a man who is not even a constituent," the editorial board wrote.

Menendez and Melgen's relationship spans far beyond a few trips to the Caribbean, however.

In 2012, the Center for Responsive politics campaign finance reports show that Melgen's business donated $700,000 to Majority PAC, a Democratic group that turned around and infused roughly $600,000 in New Jersey to support Menendez in his reelection bid.

That is what caught the attention of Ken Boehm, the chairman of National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group.

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Boehm says that spending so much time on behalf of an individual who is not a constituent is not typically a good use of a senator's time.

"You don't do a whole lot of heavy lifting for folks who are not constituents or have businesses in your district and everyone on the hill knows that."

Despite being at the center of the controversy and in crisis, Menendez maintains his innocence.

Gene Grabowski, the executive vice president of strategy firm Levick, says in today's quick breaking news world, there is no reason to resign now. Menendez could likely survive if he just holds on.

"As fast as you can bring someone down today, you can bounce back," Grabowski says. "Today there is nothing but resurrections of public figures. It is in Menendez's public interest to stay there if it turns out that prosecutors fail to fatally wound him."

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Grabowski argues that in the 1970s and 1980s the mere mention of a controversy, led politicians to resign. But today, the president of the United States can be impeached and more than a decade later maintain a 69 percent approval rating.

Grabowski says politicians in Congress live in a constant state of crisis and controversy and continue to operate and run the government through all the noise.

"They tend to work through the distractions," Grabowski says. "There are very, very few people in the political world who are [unscathed]."

A Quinnipiac University Poll in February showed 41 percent of New Jersey residents disapproved of the job Menendez was doing while just 28 percent believed that their senator could be trusted.

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