NYT: Menendez "discouraged" US assistance to DR to boost contributor's business

The New York Times has a blockbuster update to the Robert Menendez corruption story, but an oddly passive headline for it — “Details Emerging in Menendez Case.”  The URL suggests that someone at the Gray Lady watered down an original headline, which describes the story more accurately — “Menendez Discouraged Giving Port Security Equipment to Dominicans.”  If you’ve been following the Menendez saga, you’ll already know why:

Senator Robert Menendez sought to discourage any plan by the United States government to donate port security equipment to the Dominican Republic, citing concern that the advanced screening gear might undermine efforts by a private company — run by a major campaign contributor and friend of his — to do the work.

The intervention with the Department of Homeland Security last month came even though Mr. Menendez has publicly chastised the Obama administration for not doing more to combat the surging drug traffic moving through Dominican ports.

And it came shortly after the senator’s friend, Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, arranged to meet with a senior State Department official, accompanied by a former aide to Mr. Menendez, in a related push to protect the port security contract, which is worth as much as $500 million over 20 years.

He wasn’t exactly subtle about boosting Melgen, either:

In a January e-mail exchange with Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Menendez’s staff did not mention Dr. Melgen or his company, Boarder Support Services, by name.

But the aide asked if the United States government was planning to donate additional port security equipment to the Dominican Republic. The aide explained that if such a donation occurred, the Dominican government, perhaps under pressure from criminal elements there, might intentionally limit the use of the equipment so that drugs or other contraband could still flow through the country’s ports on the way to the United States.

Only by hiring the unnamed private contractor, the e-mail said, could the United States be assured that port security in the Dominican Republic would be enhanced.

Breitbart’s Michael Patrick Leahy tries to look at this from a charitable point of view, but prefers a more cynical take:

Viewed in the most charitable light, Menendez might have been genuinely concerned that the government of the Dominican Republic could not be trusted to screen for drugs on its own, and that a private contractor could do a better job. And Dr. Melgen might have simply been worried that further donations of equipment would undercut his ability to earn legitimate returns on his investment by providing the equipment himself.

A less charitable approach would raise questions as to whether Dr. Melgen could provide the same level of security as the government of a sovereign state, and why he wanted to ensure that he, and not Dominican Republic officials, would control the equipment. Likewise, a less charitable view of Menendez’s conduct might be that he intended to assist a donor and friend even at the risk of compromising anti-smuggling efforts.

Let me offer a point in favor of cynicism.  If in fact Menendez was entirely interested in the best possible port security for the DR and the US, why wouldn’t he have declared his conflict of interest in the matter and asked another member of the Foreign Relations Committee to handle the issue?  It might have caused a little angst among Democrats, and perhaps shaved a percentage point off of his double-digit election win in November, but it would have ensured that port security was the motivation and the result of the conflict.

Instead, it’s pretty clear that Menendez was intervening to the point of interfering with drug interdiction in order to pressure the DR to do business with his contributor.  And if that’s the case, the Senate Ethics Committee is going to have its options limited when it has to determine what to do with Menendez.  With the New York Times now breaking these kinds of “details,” albeit with porridge-like headlines, the pressure will be on Democrats to clean their own house.