NEWARK — A State Department official claimed during courtroom testimony on Tuesday that Sen. Bob Menendez threatened to hold a hearing regarding a port shipping issue facing one of his donors, Salomon Melgen, in 2012.
Mark Wells said that Menendez — then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Western Hemisphere subcommittee — met with the department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, in May 2012. Brownfield then told his staff to craft a plan relating to port security reform for shipping companies like ICCSI, a firm partially owned by Melgen. If no plan was formulated by July 1, 2012, Wells said, a hearing on the issue was considered imminent.
At the time of the interaction, the Dominican Republic government was not fulfilling the requirements of a shipping contract with ICCSI, potentially costing Melgen millions. Among other allegations, Menendez is accused of pressuring other government officials to look into issues affecting Melgen in exchange for alleged bribes.
Prosecutors argued that Menendez’s involvement in the port security dispute was evidence of a corrupt agreement between the senator and Melgen. However, Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell said the senator’s interest in the matter stemmed from concerns relating to port security and drug trafficking. “There was a lack of proper screening of containers leaving the port in the Dominican Republic,” Wells testified.
In an email sent to reporters, Menendez spokeswoman Patricia Enright said the senator “remains keenly interested in U.S.-Latin American relations, maritime security, and the role that port security plays in fighting drug trafficking, defending the homeland, and improving security throughout the Western Hemisphere.” That e-mail, sent on Tuesday afternoon, details how cargo scanning and other port security initiatives combat terrorism.
Wells said that he traveled with Brownfield to the Dominican Republic after the meeting with Menendez and met with the country’s president. Wells said that he told the president there was “intense congressional interest” relating to the port issue. The trip had not been planned before Menendez’s meeting with Brownfield, Wells said.
Menendez trial is now in its fourth week and is expected to continue through November. On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) appeared in the courtroom to support Menendez. He is one of a long line of Democrats who has been seen in court since the beginning of the trial.