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How New Jersey's High-Flying Sen. Menendez Ran Into Turbulence

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How New Jersey's High-Flying Sen. Menendez Ran Into Turbulence

Follow The Money

How New Jersey's High-Flying Sen. Menendez Ran Into Turbulence

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

These should be good times for Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Voters re-elected him last fall in a landslide. A few weeks ago, he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But along the way, Menendez has come under scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee, and perhaps other government investigators, for his connections to a longtime friend and generous campaign donor.

Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Last July, Senator Menendez called two administration officials to his Foreign Relations subcommittee to explain to him why Washington wasn't sticking up for U.S. business interests in South America. Menendez gave several examples, including a couple involving the Dominican Republic.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: You have another company that has American investors that is seeking to...

OVERBY: He didn't name the company. He said it had a Dominican Republic government contract for port security but officials there wanted to start their own port security operation.

MENENDEZ: And they don't want to live by that contract, either.

OVERBY: He said the U.S. needed to side with the company, not the government.

MENENDEZ: You know what? If those countries can get away with that, they will.

OVERBY: What Menendez didn't say was that the company was partly-owned by a wealthy Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen. Here's how Menendez described Melgen at a recent press conference in New Jersey.

MENENDEZ: Someone who I've known for 20 years. Someone who has been a friend. Someone who has been a supporter.

OVERBY: A longtime and generous supporter. Last year, Melgen's medical practice gave $700,000 to a Democratic superPAC, and the superPAC spent nearly $600,000 to help Menendez in the election.

Ken Boehm is chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group that has investigated Menendez.

KEN BOEHM: He knew he was carrying water for one specific donor at the very time that donor was writing very large checks to benefit the senator.

OVERBY: There are other connections, as well. Twice since 2009, Menendez went to Medicare on Melgen's behalf when officials alleged the doctor had over-billed by nearly $9 million. Last month, FBI and Health and Human Services agents raided Melgen's office in West Palm Beach, hauling away boxes of documents.

Menendez also admits that he failed to disclose two trips on Melgen's private jet; flights to a Dominican Republic resort community where Melgen has a house.

Here's Menendez again, talking to reporters in New Jersey.

MENENDEZ: I welcome any review. But I have no intention of having the smears try to deviate me from the work that I have been doing and will continue to do.

OVERBY: Menendez is one of the least wealthy members of the Senate. But now he's reimbursed Melgen for the flights - $58,500 in all. His net worth last year was as little as $200,000, according to his Senate disclosure.

The Senate Ethics Committee is looking into the case.

At the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Melanie Sloan says it's a touchy subject, this business of doing favors for donors.

MELANIE SLOAN: I think many members will be hesitant to take Menendez on for that, given that they can't afford to have their own campaign donations examined too closely.

OVERBY: And another complication: because the port security matter was discussed at that subcommittee hearing, it could be considered an official debate and constitutionally off limits for prosecutors.

Menendez has come under scrutiny before but has never been charged. He even had a reputation as the clean guy in one of the state's most corrupt county organizations. Tom Moran is a columnist with The Star-Ledger of Newark.

TOM MORAN: In fact, he testified in his younger days in a bulletproof vest in a federal corruption trial against his mentor.

OVERBY: And a poll released last week showed that so far, none of these new allegations seems to matter much to New Jersey voters.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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