Robert Menendez has sullied the reputation of New Jersey politicians. Let that sink in for a minute. The veteran Democratic senator, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, was charged last week — for the second time — in an alleged corruption scheme that would make a ward heeler blush, including that he took bribes in the form of gold bars and attempted to interfere in criminal investigations on behalf of political cronies.
Menendez has beaten the rap once before, when his 2017 federal trial on a previous set of corruption allegations ended in a hung jury and the Justice Department decided against retrying him. He vehemently denies the latest allegations and says he has no intention of resigning, though he did step aside from his chairmanship, as required by Senate rules.
But on Tuesday, several other prominent Democrats signaled they’d had enough, calling for Menendez to leave the Senate. That included both Massachusetts senators. Elizabeth Warren told a Globe columnist that “these are serious charges, and it’s time for Senator Menendez to step away from the Senate and concentrate on his legal defense.” Ed Markey said: “The public’s trust has been broken. Senator Menendez should resign.” New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, and other senator, Cory Booker, have both also asked Menendez to step down, which is especially notable because Booker stood by Menendez during his last scrape with the law.
Menendez should have viewed the outcome of that last trial as a lucky break and a second chance. Instead, the mistrial seemingly emboldened him to be even more brazen. According to prosecutors, in the months after the hung jury, he embarked on a corrupt scheme to help the Egyptian government win approval for arms deals in exchange for “hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes.” The bribes would come to include “cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job [for Menendez’s wife], a luxury vehicle, and other things of value,” prosecutors said. The indictment also alleges that Menendez attempted to meddle in a criminal case to protect two associates of a man who gave Menendez a Mercedes-Benz and recommended a US attorney candidate he believed he could influence regarding the prosecution of a fund-raiser.
The case highlights the little-noticed power individual senators often exert over foreign arms sales and government appointments — power Menendez is accused of abusing. As the indictment notes, “as a matter of longstanding, voluntary practice” the State Department lets the senior leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee place holds on foreign military sales. Practices like that should come under a microscope. Congressional oversight is vital. But under normal circumstances it should be exercised by — well, by Congress, not by individual members.
As for Menendez’s future, bribery cases are notoriously hard to prove in court — even when, as in this case, the evidence positively glitters. But when it comes to politics, criminality is the wrong standard to apply. Whether or not Menendez belongs in prison, it’s clear that he doesn’t belong in the US Senate. The Democrats calling on one of their own to resign are defending the institution (and also themselves, since they don’t want Menendez dragging down other Senate Democrats next year). And if Menendez doesn’t heed their calls to resign, Democratic and Republican opponents are waiting for him in next year’s elections.
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