Questions continue to dog New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez about his relationship with his friend and campaign donor, Doctor Salomon Melgen.
The Senator's aides have confirmed he went to bat for Melgen with health care regulators in a multi-million dollar billing dispute and the Senator monitored the status of a pending port security contract Melgen has with the Dominican Republic. Last month, the FBI and members of a Medicare and Medicaid Fraud unit raided Melgen's Florida office.
Several newspapers have assigned reporters to continue to take a closer look at the Melgen-Menendez relationship. There is a pending Senate Ethics probe of the Senator's failure to disclose in a timely manner two trips he took on Dr. Melgen's private jet in 2010. Menendez reimbursed Melgen almost $60,000 for those flights last month after an ethics complaint had been filed against him last fall.
Senator Menendez has steadfastly defended his actions as above board.
In the case of his advocacy of Melgen in the health care billing flap with Federal regulators he says he was only looking to clarify rules that were ambiguous. In the case of the port contract an aide to the Senator says he only wanted to see to it that the Dominican Republic had a reliable way to interdict drugs or thwart a potential terrorist attack.
Peter Harvey, a former federal prosecutor and state Attorney General, says the line between legal advocacy on behalf of a campaign donor and potential bribery hangs on whether or not the campaign cash was contingent upon the politician taking a specific action.
"It is a much easier case if you can show that in exchange for the campaign contribution the public official agreed to do a particular act that would benefit the campaign donor," Harvey said.
Former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz says recent Supreme Court rulings have greatly limited the kinds of political corruption cases prosecutors can pursue.
"The Supreme Court has severely narrowed that statute so that there has to be an actual kickback or bribe that prosecutors can show that deprived the public of the honest services of that elected official," Mintz said.
University of Minnesota Law Professor Richard Painter is an expert on Congressional ethics. He says between the Supreme Court's Citizens United case, which loosened restrictions for campaign contributions, and the high court's decision to make it harder for prosecutors to bring political corruption cases, the Congressional Ethics rules are the only real check left on the power of donors to co-opt individual members of Congress.
"We have so little ability to control the influence of campaign contributors that through whatever rules we have, House and Senate rules and so forth, I would think that members could follow the rules. And if they can't they ought to get out of there," Painter said.
The New York Times has called for Menendez to relinquish his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pending the results of the Senate Ethics Committee probe. Top Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, continue to express support for Menendez.