You may not have heard much about it in the mainstream media, but a long-time Democratic Senator will go on trial Wednesday in New Jersey, facing Federal bribery and corruption charges.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) will sit patiently while the prosecution presents its opening arguments, alleging that Menendez took orders from a big-money donor named Dr. Salomon Melgen, helping the Miami-based oral surgeon manipulate the State Department and get visas for his many foreign girlfriends in return for millions in campaign donations.
The government says that Menendez threw his weight around for Melgen left and right, resolving a $9 million Medicare billing dispute — that even dragged in then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — and using the State Department to help Melgen get a $500 million port security contract in the Dominican Republic. Further charges allege Menendez used his office to manipulate the State Department into approving travel for Melgen's many girlfriends, having aides lean on State officials until they approved even questionable visas.
The government's initital filings read:
“Email exchanges between the defendants, their agents, and officials from Executive Branch agencies will show Menendez’s considerable efforts to pressure the Executive Branch on Melgen’s behalf. And testimony from the agency officials over whom he exerted that pressure will illuminate the relentlessness of those efforts.”
In return, the government claims, Melgen and his family were generous to Menendez's campaigns, almost from the beginning. Menendez also enjoyed many private vacations to Melgen's favorite Carribbean hideaways, they say.
If this all sounds bizarre, its topped only by Menendez's arguments in his own defense, which run the gamut from Justice Department interference in his "legitimate legislative activities," to a super-complicated plot by the Cuban government to frame Menendez because they were angry about his opposition to opening Cuba during the Obama Administration (not one to pick sides, Menendez also says the Obama Administration may be involved in the smear campaign, too).
The trial is expected to last several weeks. After all, it's the first full corruption trial for a sitting member of Congress since the US Attorneys took on Sen. Harrison Williams in the infamous Abscam case.
As for Menendez's Democratic colleagues in the Senate, well, they're staying mum. Legal experts are predicting a conviction; if that scenario materializes, it could send Democrats into a scramble to replace Menendez with someone more reliable (and less, you know, in jail) ahead of the next election cycle, or risk losing yet another Senate vote to Republicans.
For now, though, they're pretending as if nothing is going on, and allies like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker say they'll wait and see on Menendez before making any moves.