It has been a tough week for U.S. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The senator faces an ethics probe into flights he took to the Dominican Republic on a jet belonging to Doctor Salomon Melgen, a big campaign donor Menendez has gone to bat for with the federal government.
Menendez only disclosed the two 2010 jet flights last month when he reimbursed Melgen almost $60,000 for them. Meanwhile, Melgen's Florida offices were recently raided by the FBI and investigators looking into Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
As the new chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, he is preparing to go to Afghanistan and Pakistan this weekend. In a phone conversation, Senator Menendez dismissed any suggestion that there was any quid pro quo in his relationship with Melgen.
"Well, first of all, from what I’ve read it’s about campaign contributions, and the reality is there is no nexus," Menendez said.
Menendez said the allegations are the product of a right wing partisan agenda and not journalism.
“A lot of what’s going on here is that it all started with a smear campaign rooted in you know, nameless, faceless, and anonymous allegations that was generated through a partisan, right-wing website."
As far as press reports that a Menendez went to bat for Melgen with federal health care regulators over the doctor's billing practices, the senator stands by his actions.
"Well you know I’ve always believed in advocacy for individuals and companies that have a legitimate issue with the you know, the government at any given time."
And Menendez said his interest in the status of Dr. Melgen's pending port security contract for scanning cargo for the Dominican Republic fits into his long standing commitment to enhancing port security and drug interdiction.
"Certainly I’m very much concerned about port security. I’m very much, I passed legislation to seek 100 percent scanning of all cargo here in the United States, I would want nothing less from countries that are big trans-shipment points, particularly of drugs to the United States," Menendez said.
So is the negative press, including a recent New York Times editorial calling on him to relinquish his chairmanship, pending the outcome of a Senate Ethics probe, having an impact on the Senator and his work?
"I have been very engaged as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee on holding a series of meetings with officials from South Korea, with the foreign minister of Jordan, passed a bipartisan resolution on the North Korea nuclear tests ... so you know, our work continues on and our focus on behalf of the people of New Jersey is laser sharp," Menendez said.
Menendez said he has been to Afghanistan before but this trip will be his first to Pakistan. He says his trip comes at a critical time with the U.S. preparing to wind down the war and hit a reset button with Pakistan.
"How is it that we move that relationship forward in the national interest and security of the United States and in a way that has the Pakistanis be more robustly engaged with us," Menendez said.
To listen to Bob Hennelly's full interview with Senator Robert Menendez, click the audio above.