Media wonders: Why is Menendez intervening on behalf of a big campaign donor, anyway?

The national media may not be asking about underaged hookers — yet — but they’re getting a lot more interested in whether Senator Bob Menendez prostituted his office on behalf of a big donor.  After an FBI raid this week targeted the offices of Menendez crony and contributor Salomon Melgen, Menendez scurried to round up enough cash to reimburse Melgen for private-jet flights to the Dominican Republic, apparently emptying his bank account.  That was enough to draw the interest of the Senate Ethics Committee — and now the Washington Post wants to know why Menendez seemed so intent on intervening on behalf of his friend’s business interests:

Last year, as Melgen donated $700,000 to support the senator’s reelection campaign and other Democrats, Menendez sought to turn up the pressure on the Dominican Republic to carry out the multimillion-dollar contract. Melgen had acquired an ownership stake in a company that had previously contracted with the Dominican Republic to provide port security.

In July, Menendez led a Senate hearing on the challenges of doing business in Latin America and urged officials from the Commerce and State departments to apply pressure to countries that didn’t honor agreements with U.S. businesses. Without naming Melgen, Menendez highlighted the contract to provide security in the Dominican port.

The U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, an ally of Menendez, added his voice to the cause, according to reports in the Dominican press. In a meeting with government officials in the island nation, Ambassador Raul Yzaguirre stressed the need for the Dominican Republic to start scanning container ships entering its port for terrorist threats and drugs.

Dominican merchants were fuming at the cost — the 20-year contract was estimated to be worth as much as $500 million — and questioning how an eye doctor had branched out into port security.

Melgen “is an ophthalmologist, for Christ’s sake,” said William Malamud of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Dominican Republic. “He has no experience in port security.’’

No, but he has a lot of experience in crony capitalism and possibly corruption, it appears.  It’s taken a while, but the media has finally taken some interest in Menendez’ travels and connections, and especially in how both may relate to his work as US Senator.  And the Post isn’t alone, either.  Here’s the LA Times:

Sen. Robert Menendez, the powerful New Jersey Democrat who this week was named chairman of theSenate Foreign Relations Committee, is facing a Senate ethics probe into whether he accepted inappropriate gifts from a wealthy Florida eye surgeon who is under FBI investigation.

The Senate Ethics Committee is conducting a preliminary investigation of two trips Menendez took to a luxury beach resort in the Dominican Republic in August and September 2010 as a guest of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend and political donor. …

A review of records shows Menendez has at times used his role on the Foreign Relations Committee to advocate for Melgen.

In a subcommittee hearing last July, he pressed Commerce and State Department officials for action to help enforce contracts held by U.S. firms in the Dominican Republic, including a seaport security contract granted to a company partially owned by Melgen.

The company, ICSSI, holds a contract, reportedly worth $500 million to $1 billion over 20 years, to X-ray cargo shipped through the Dominican Republic. Business groups there have fought to keep the deal from going into effect, arguing that the fees are too high and would increase their costs.

And also CNN, which actually does mention the allegations of prostitution:

Another issue has to do with whether Menendez advocated on behalf of ICSSI — a port security company that Melgen has a stake in — on Capitol Hill.

During a Senate subcommittee hearing last July, Menendez didn’t mention ICSSI by name, but he did press Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Rooney about an unnamed company who had a contract to X-ray cargo that went through all Dominican ports — a contract that, he said, Dominican authorities “don’t want to live by.”

“If those countries can get away with that, they will,” the senator said. “And that puts American companies at a tremendous disadvantage.”

Looks like Menendez isn’t just being held to account by “right-wing blogs” alone any more.

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