In 2015, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted on bribery charges. Prosecutors alleged that he accepted nearly $1 million in bribes through campaign donations, vacations, and private jet flights in return for doing political favors for a Florida optometrist, Salomon Melgen, a co-defendant in the case. In April 2017, Melgen was found guilty of Medicare fraud. Menendez pressed Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary for leniency in the case. In addition, Menendez also tried to use his political influence to coerce U.S. officials to pressure the Dominican Republic to benefit one of Melgen’s companies. He also intervened in acquiring visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends. Since 2014, Menendez has raised $4.6 million for legal expenses and has continued to raise campaign funds for his re-election bid in 2018.
On August 9, a federal judge denied Menendez’s last chance to avoid a trial this September. His attorneys tried to argue that his indictment should be overturned due to the Supreme Court decision that essentially normalized corruption by overturning former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corruption conviction in June 2016. In the ruling against Menendez, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls wrote, “Whether the acts alleged in the Superseding Indictment satisfy the definition of an ‘official act’ under McDonnell is a factual determination that cannot be resolved before the Government has the opportunity to present evidence at trial.”
In addition to McDonnell’s successful overturning of a corruption conviction, former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver managed to have his corruption conviction overturned in July 2017 due to the Supreme Court’s decision narrowing the definition of political corruption, though federal prosecutors are working on re-trying the case. Former Congresswoman Corinne Brown is currently undergoing efforts to have her corruption conviction from May 2017 overturned.
This trend of permitting high-profile public officials to remain in elected office after receiving federal indictments normalizes corruption. Civilians indicted on charges related to their jobs are typically fired or forced to resign. Public officials should be held to even higher standards than people in the private sector because they are accountable to their constituents. Instead, standards of conduct have been deteriorating, leading to political antipathy across the country because voters increasingly feel that public officials prioritize their personal interests and those of their wealthy donors.
What kind of representation are constituents receiving when public officials behave in ways where they have to worry about staying out of jail because of actions they took in office? As American citizens, public officials have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but constituents also have the right to unencumbered representation. Politicians should not be allowed to act above the law and get away with it.
Update: The Palm Beach Post reported that Melgen’s sentencing in a separate trial was abruptly postponed, fueling speculation he may be cooperating with authorities in the Menendez case.