When Robert Menendez arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2006, he was a relative pauper in a chamber often called a millionaires’ club. The New Jersey Democrat ranked 97th out of 100 senators in terms of his personal wealth, according to financial records filed that year and compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
So Menendez’s decision last month to use his personal funds to reimburse a prominent political contributor $58,500 for two flights to the Dominican Republic came at a major cost. The repayment amounts to between 32 percent and 87 percent of the assets Menendez reported holding in bank accounts and stock, according to his latest financial-disclosure form, which was filed last year.
Menendez repaid Florida eye doctor and political donor Salomon Melgen only after his free flights aboard Melgen’s plane became public and the subject of a Senate ethics complaint. A local New Jersey Republican group filed a complaint last November, alleging the senator had broken Senate rules by “repeatedly flying on a private jet to the Dominican Republic, and other locations.” Menendez reimbursed Melgen the $58,500 two months later, on Jan. 4, according to his office.
Government watchdogs are dubious. They say Menendez’s financial situation adds fuel to questions about his motives and whether the free flights he accepted were a simple oversight.
“For a senator that’s not a Rockefeller, that’s real money,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “It kind of makes you wonder.… If he knew in advance that the trips were going to cost him $60,000, would he have done it?”
In the years after the Jack Abramoff scandal, which involved trips abroad for politicians, McGehee said it “stretches credibility” that Menendez was unaware he was receiving a gift while boarding a private flight to a Caribbean island. “You’re about to walk on a private plane, and you’re a public official—and that doesn’t occur to you?” she said.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, another watchdog group, was even less charitable.
“He waited until he was caught to pay them back,” she said. “If you rob a bank—and you’re caught—you don’t say, ‘Take the money back and forget about it.’ ”