Until last week, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was relatively untouchable among Democrats, while holding virtual veto power over US Cuba policy and being a military hawk on US policies towards Syria, Iran and Venezuela.
Not any more.
Now Menendez’s grip is weakened by revelations that his very close friend Miami opthalmologist Saloman Melgen topped the country in Medicare fraud, and funneled $700,000 in campaign contributions through a Democratic Super PAC, nearly all of which were channeled right back to the Menendez re-election campaign in 2012. Melgen ripped off $21 million in Medicare reimbursements that year alone by over-prescribing a medication for vision loss among seniors.
A key question is whether Senate leader Harry Reid, whose close former aides run the Majority PAC for Senate Democrats, will aggressively investigate ethics violations, diminish Menendez’s Senate standing, or risk his party‘s association with the scandal by circling the wagons.
Federal investigations, including two raids on Dr. Melgen’s clinics, already have revealed that Menendez interceded with Medicare officials on his friend’s behalf in 2009 and 2011. Menendez is still under scrutiny by the Obama Justice Department. Menendez acknowledges traveling several times on Melgen’s private jet and staying at the eye doctor’s posh estate in the Dominican Republic. Menendez was forced to reimburse $58,500 for the costs of those trips when the information was disclosed in 2010.
The important back story in the Menendez-Melger case is that US Cuba policy is at stake.
The Cuban-American Menendez is a fierce lifetime opponent of any easing of tensions with Havana. As a top fundraiser and the Democratic chairman of the key foreign relations committee, Menendez is an obstacle to Obama and Senate liberals on a range of national security policies. He favors regime change through military or covert means in Syria, Iran, Venezuela and, of course, Cuba. He has the power to set bills, hold hearings and approve or deny administration nominations. Menendez is becoming Obama’s chief domestic obstacle in normalizing relations with Cuba. Even on an administration priority like immigration reform, Menendez (and Senator Marco Rubio) have pledged their votes only on the condition that their hardline position on Cuba is heeded.
Now that Menendez’s grip on power is weakened, the only question is by how much.
Only a few years ago Menendez, chairing the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, raised hell when one of the party’s biggest fundraisers, Hollywood’s Andy Spahn, tried raising funds for candidates who supported a new Cuba policy. Spahn, who travels often to Cuba with American politicians and Hollywood producers like Steven Spielberg, was demonized by Menendez and shut down. But Spahn today remains as one of Obama’s top fundraisers, and actively supports lifting the embargo.
This year an even sharper split erupted in the Senate between Menendez and Senator Patrick Leahy who is making a top priority of achieving a new Cuban policy. Leahy, who engages in steady, behind-the-scenes dialogue with Cuban officials, obtained sixty-six Senate signatures on a December 2013 letter to Obama calling on the president to “act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest” to obtain the release of American citizen Alan Gross. Gross is a contractor for the US Agency for International Development serving a fifteen-year sentence in Cuba for covertly smuggling high-tech communications equipment into the island. A rival letter sent by Menendez and Rubio calling for Gross’ “immediate and unconditional release” garnered only fourteen votes, an embarrassing setback for Menendez. In the opaque culture of Washington, the Leahy letter was interpreted as political cover for Obama to negotiate diplomatically for Gross’ release, whereas the Menendez letter was a dud.