Senator Menendez Under Fire As He Takes Up Senate Foreign Relations Gavel

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez this month personally repaid nearly $59,000 for two trips to the Dominican Republic aboard a private jet. The jet is owned by a Florida eye doctor who is under investigation by the FBI.

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Now to politics in the U.S. and one of those ethical storms that can blow over in a few weeks or end a career. This time, the storm clouds are hovering over Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Tomorrow, he'll officially take on a prominent chairmanship in the Senate. So what's all the ethical fuss about?

NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith explains.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This should have been a good week for Senator Menendez. He was selected by his peers to take over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee when John Kerry leaves to become Secretary of State. But instead, his staff is scrambling to explain his friendship with a West Palm Beach ophthalmologist whose office was raided yesterday by the FBI.

The doctor, Salomon Melgen, is a political donor and personal friend of the senator. Over the years, Menendez has visited the doctor at a home he owns in the Dominican Republic. It turns out, on at least two occasions, he flew on the doctor's private plane, without paying for it or reporting it as a gift as required under law.

Melanie Sloan is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

MELANIE SLOAN: You can accept gifts of travel from a personal friend. But if it's going to be valued at more than $250, you have to get clearance from the Ethics Committee beforehand, and then you would have to disclose it on your financial disclosure form as a gift.

KEITH: On these two occasions, Menendez didn't do that. A spokesman for the senator says, his staff recently discovered two un-reconciled trips. On January 4th, the senator paid $58,000 out of his own pocket to reimburse Dr. Melgen for the cost of the flights. According to the spokesman, the mistake was rectified as quickly as it could be. Sloan says this is concerning.

SLOAN: He tried to get away with it and now he's caught. And so, he paid the money back and he's trying to clean it up that way, and pretend that it all is fine. But it isn't fine.

KEITH: That said, she doesn't expect him to face censure from the Senate Ethics Committee or legal trouble, because he paid for the flights retroactively.

There are also questions about what the senator may have been doing on these trips. Just before the November election, when he was re-elected, a conservative website began reporting that Menendez, who is divorced, used the services of prostitutes. His office put out a statement yesterday saying, quote, "Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood by Menendez.

SENATOR HARRY REID: Bob Menendez is my friend. He's an outstanding senator.

KEITH: As for the FBI, it isn't saying much except to confirm that it conducted law enforcement activity yesterday at the address where Dr. Melgen has a medical office. Agents were seen carrying many file boxes out of the office. Over the years, Melgen and his family have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly Democratic candidates and party committees.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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