Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) faces indictment on charges that he accepted bribes in exchange for political favors, but his allies persist in the belief that the outspoken Menendez is merely a victim of “selective prosecution.” In the face of others shaking their heads over Menendez’s alleged misdeeds, they see this case as one in a long line indicative of the politicization of law enforcement.
The indictment alleges that Salomon Melgen—a doctor from Florida—bought Menendez’s influence by lavishing the Senator with favors and trips. Menendez’s defense hinges on the argument that Melgen is a longtime friend.
At its core, the case forces consideration of the degree to which politicians, for the sake of survival, must conform to the will of powerful donors, and where the line exists demarcating lawful and unlawful. Given the political backdrop leading up to Menendez’s indictment, the case also begs questions about prosecutorial timing and targeting. Has law enforcement become an extension of the political process?
According to Montclair University political expert, Brigid Harrison, the answer to the latter question is ‘yes.’
According to Harrison, Menendez’s indictment can be tied to his opposition on two of the Obama Administration’s main foreign policy actions: normalizing relations with Cuba and the Iran Nuclear Deal. In March, a CNN report came out alleging the Senator of bad behavior. In April, the indictment hit his desk.
“It is rare for a sitting senator from the President’s party to get indicted unless it is an egregious thing. There was no egregious offense here,” Harrison said. “Given the Menendez situation, it would not appear out of character for the government to use its law enforcement arm to enact a retaliatory investigation to target political opponents.”
For Harrison, Menendez’s indictment can be paralleled to Hillary Clinton’s ongoing email scandal.
“It is no secret that President Obama and Hillary Clinton were opponents in 2008. Now, there are rumors that President is going to back Joe Biden for a run for president,” she said. “We can make the connection between these allegations with the FBI and the Department of Justice.”
John Graham, long time Democratic fundraiser, believes that, though an angle of political retribution to indictments like Menendez’s can’t be proven, situations like his “don’t look good.”
“We can’t know whether or not there is a political angle to the Menendez case. No one knows,” Graham said. “It is not ok if a political leader uses the office of the Attorney General or any office for retribution. Everything should have its own merits.”
The rise of Governor Chris Christie to his high status—he is now a Presidential hopeful, albeit hampered by poor poll numbers —points to a crossover between politics and law enforcement. The U.S. Attorney’s Democratic critics routinely objected to what they identified as Christie’s selective prosecution. Having survived an indictment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2009, former Assemblyman Lou Manzo to this day maintains that Christie was “[forgoing] prosecutions of political operatives who were key in his campaign.” In an interview last month with PolitickerNJ reporter J.T. Aregood, Manzo mentioned the names of Ocean County Republican Party Chairman George Gilmore and then Monmouth County Republican Party Chairman Joe Oxley, whom Christie nominated for the New Jersey Superior Court in 2012, as people whom a less politically habituated prosecutor might have drilled.
Democrats were not the only ones critical of Christie.
At the 2008 federal sentencing of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, indicted on corruption charges by then-U.S. Attorney Christie, Judge William Martini, a former Republican Congressman, criticized the prosecution.
“Don’t talk about a history of corruption unless you can prove it,” said the judge. “I don’t want to hear these allegations of a corrupt administration, he’s all-powerful, he didn’t do any good. I’m supposed to throw out the history of a man’s life for misconduct he committed at age 69?”
To this day, James feels he was wronged, the target of a political coup by Christie. Did the mayor simply wield his power within the scope of the game and become victimized by an overzealous and politically ambitious prosecutor?
Was the mayor a local version of Menendez?
The jury didn’t think so, and sided with Christie’s prosecutors.
Juan Gutierrez, a proud Republican who backs Senator Marco Rubio for president, is a longtime Menendez supporter. He believes the Obama Administration selectively prosecuted his friend.
“Obama comes from Chicago,” Gutierrez told PolitickerNJ. “He’s a vicious politician. There’s no doubt in my mind that what Bob [Menendez] is going through is a consequence of political payback. Bob is a progressive guy on domestic issues, but he’s more conservative on foreign policy, and I think Obama knew Bob would stand in the way of policy initiatives on Iran and Cuba, and so…”
Others, however, are skeptical that there is a correlation between politics and indictments. Patrick Murray is a political expert from Monmouth University who was accused by Governor Christie in July of politicizing Monmouth’s poll reports. Christie claimed that there was no “less objective pollster about Chris Christie in America. The guy’s an advocate. He’s a liberal advocate.”
“The rumors of targeting obviously are coming from the Menendez camp,” Murray told PolitickerNJ. “There is no way to confirm or deny them. The fact that he has been a vocal opponent of the president on key policy issues and whether or not those disagreements have to do with anything, I am just really not sure.”
To other high-profile individuals like Texas Congressman Ted Cruz—who like Menendez and Gutierrez is Cuban-American—the indictment seems politically motivated.
“The announcement… by the Justice Department that they were bringing charges against Bob Menendez — I will point out that the timing seems awfully coincidental that … in the very week that Bob Menendez showed incredible courage to speak out and call out President Obama for the damage that his policy is doing to our national security … the Justice Department announces they’re moving forward with the criminal prosecution,” Cruz told reporters in Iowa in March after the allegations were made public.
Veteran criminal defense attorney Joe Hayden questions the basis for the Menendez prosecution and was aghast at the time over the federal leak of the indictment. “There are very serious challenges to both legal and factual theory of the indictment,” he said.
“I think the jury will have to decide whether or not gifts from a long-standing friend of 20 years could ever be considered bribes,” Hayden added. “What is happening is that it seems the government is becoming very aggressive with legal theory in cases throughout the U.S. of what constitutes bribery.”
Once in handcuffs, everyone’s a victim – and many politicians can summon a political motivation behind why they fell victim. Another N.J. politician currently facing indictment in New Jersey is West New York Mayor Felix Roque, whose story in the context of Menendez carries an ironic twist.
Like the senior senator from New Jersey, Roque is currently under indictment. In the mayor’s case, he faces charges that he accepted $250,000 worth of bribes. This is his second indictment. The first came in 2012, just months after he endorsed state Senator Joe Kyrillos for U.S. Senate against incumbent Menendez. Later, he recanted that endorsement and, instead, came out in support of the Democratic incumbent. That same year an indictment alleging Mayor Roque and his son Joseph of hacking into the website of a political opponent was filed. Roque eventually beat the charges with his son getting a misdemeanor sentence.
“I don’t have any proof that Menendez had anything to do with what happened to Roque,” a Democratic source told PolitickerNJ. “To say that Menendez had anything to do with it would be giving him so much power that I wouldn’t say that.”
For some, though, issues like what happened to Menendez and Roque sparks the concern of over-reaching law enforcement that has, essentially, become a part of New Jersey’s political machine. At the time, Roque allies seethed over that they said was political retribution by Menendez forces for the West New York Mayor backing a Republican challenger to the senator’s power.
“We believe in redemption,” Menendez said of Roque after the mayor survived the fist indictment and then installed the Senator’s childhood friend, Donald Scarinci, as the town attorney.
According to one New Jersey insider, the Roque indictments were “absolutely politically motivated.”
“This is like Bridgegate in West New York,” the source said. “I think that what is happening to Menendez is political and so is what is happening in West New York.”
In April, after he was indicted, Menendez stepped down from his position as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He pled not guilty. Menendez had an initial court date of July 13. His trial has since been postponed.
Late last month, Roque pled not guilty to his own bribery charges.
Infused inevitably with politics, the intertwining narratives took their own course, and in the end, separate juries will decide.