Feb. 22 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez’s job-approval ratings have plunged amid allegations that he improperly helped a longtime friend and donor, even as fellow Democrats say they’re standing behind him.
A Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday showed that just 36 percent of New Jersey voters approve of Menendez’s job performance, a 15-point drop from January. Seventy percent of those polled, including 72 percent of independents, said they had read or heard about the controversy surrounding the 59-year-old lawmaker’s ties to Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.
“The Quinnipiac poll says he’s not in good shape,” Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute, said of Menendez, who was elected to a second term in November by almost 20 percentage points. “The political reality is that he has a lot of time to get in good shape.”
Menendez is facing no pressure from Republicans to step aside from his new post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The people of the state of New Jersey voted for Senator Menendez,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told reporters yesterday in Sea Bright. “I expect that he’ll do his job in a conscientious, fair and effective way.”
Menendez retains support from Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who told reporters last week that his confidence in Menendez “hasn’t wavered at all.”
“Members start to get in trouble when people in their own party start to turn on them, and we haven’t seen that yet,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “There are plenty of bad headlines, but I think Democrats are giving him the benefit of the doubt.”
On Jan. 29, the FBI, along with officials from the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general’s office, raided Melgen’s West Palm Beach, Florida, office as part of a probe into possible Medicare fraud, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation who asked not to be identified in discussing the matter.
Federal agents conducted the raid primarily to look into possible fraudulent billing activities by Melgen’s ophthalmology business, according to the Miami Herald.
Paul Bresson, a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokesman, declined to comment on the purpose of the raid or on the Menendez matter. The person with knowledge of the raid cautioned that it didn’t mean the action was related to the Menendez accusations.
The raid fueled scrutiny of Menendez’s ties to Melgen, who donated more than $700,000 last year to the senator’s campaign and other Senate Democrats, according to the Washington Post. Menendez in 2009 and in 2012 raised concerns with top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about the agency’s finding that the doctor had overbilled the government by $8.9 million, according to the Washington Post.
A day after the raid, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, released a letter it sent in July to the FBI and Justice Department asking them to investigate allegations raised via e-mail by a tipster. The tipster claimed Menendez engaged in sexual activities with underage prostitutes while vacationing with Melgen in the Dominican Republic.
An e-mail seeking comment sent to the account of the individual who made the accusations wasn’t returned.
According to the Washington Post, FBI agents also are looking into Menendez’s role in pushing enforcement of a port-security contract in the Dominican Republic held by a company in which Melgen is an investor.
Melgen stood to gain a windfall if the contract, which calls for operating X-ray scanners to screen cargo at the country’s ports, was enforced, the Post said.
Following the raid, Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, the top Republican on the chamber’s six-member Ethics Committee, said the panel would review the matter.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said on Feb. 10 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the ethics panel was looking into the matter and that Menendez had given assurances to Democratic leaders that “there is no substance to these charges.”
Menendez, who has denied any wrongdoing, said he wrote a $58,500 check last month to reimburse Melgen for two 2010 trips the lawmaker took to the Dominican Republic on Melgen’s private jet once the senator’s staff discovered the trips hadn’t been paid for earlier.
“No one has bought me,” Menendez said in a Feb. 8 interview with Univision, a Spanish-language television station. “No one. Ever.”
Inquiries he made on Melgen’s behalf were part of “normal process,” Menendez said in the interview, which the network translated into English.
“The fact that someone is a donor does not do away with the right or the opportunity to consider whether something is correct or incorrect, to ask questions, raise concerns,” he said.
The senator said accusations that he had sex with underage prostitutes during trips with Melgen to the Dominican Republic are “not only absurd -- but completely false.”
Melgen, a wealthy eye surgeon born in the Dominican Republic, has been a prolific donor to and friend of Menendez for years. According to published reports, Menendez has accompanied Melgen a number of times to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen owns a villa in Casa de Campo, an oceanfront gated golf resort.
As stories concerning the doctor have swirled around Menendez, the lawmaker has embraced his new role as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He’s countering the bad publicity in part by “acting like a senator,” Quinnipiac’s Carroll said.
This week he traveled to Kabul, for his first visit as head of the panel. He met with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai on Feb. 19 to call for a transparent national election next year and discuss the reduction of U.S. forces there, according to a statement from Menendez’s office in Washington.
Last week, he briefed Senate Democrats about the security situation in North Korea in a closed-door session before heading overseas. And on Feb. 13, he helped brief President Barack Obama on the status of bipartisan Senate talks on revamping U.S. immigration law.
Won’t Back Down
Menendez “is the kind of politician who’s not going to back down,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
A son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez has been an outspoken opponent of easing the trade embargo against Cuba that has been in place for about 50 years. He fought the easing of travel restrictions to the island nation pushed by the Obama administration.
He has helped shape U.S. policy on the effort to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. He has also led the push in Congress for expanded economic sanctions against Iran, forcing the Obama administration to accept steps it now embraces.
Still, even without the latest controversy, Menendez would face a difficult challenge establishing his foreign policy credentials, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The most recent chairmen were Democrats Joe Biden, who left when he became vice president in 2009, and John Kerry, who was confirmed as U.S. secretary of state by the Senate last month on a vote of 94-3.
“It’s a distraction for him, without question,” Baker said of the recent reports.
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