Menendez sponsored bill to benefit big donor

The more the media looks into the ties between Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and his big donor and private-jet provider Salomon Melgen, the more potential corruption floats to the surface. Today, the Associated Press discovers that Melgen turns out to be one of the big investors in a company that would have benefited from Menendez’ sponsorship of legislation to provide federal subsidies to natural-gas conversions for automobiles (via JWF):

Sen. Robert Menendez sponsored legislation with incentives for natural gas vehicle conversions that would benefit the biggest political donor to his re-election, the same eye doctor whose private jet Menendez used for two personal trips to the Dominican Republic, an Associated Press investigation found. …

Dr. Salomon Melgen invested in Gaseous Fuel Systems Corp. of Weston, Fla., and joined its board of directors in early 2010, according to the company’s chief executive and a former company consultant. GFS, as the company is known, designs, manufactures and sells products to convert diesel-fuel fleets to natural gas. The amount of Melgen’s investment is confidential under rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but a 2009 document filed with the SEC showed the company required a minimum individual investment at that time of $51,500.

At the same time, Menendez emerged as a principal supporter of a natural gas bill that would boost tax credits and grants to truck and heavy vehicle fleets that converted to alternative fuels. The bill stalled in the Senate Finance Committee, and after it was revived in 2012, the NAT GAS Act failed to win the needed 60 votes to pass.

The AP tries to offer some objective distance from a rather obvious conclusion:

There is no evidence that Menendez offered direct help or intervened on behalf of the company or Melgen. Instead, the connection between the two men’s interests in natural gas is the latest example of the close symmetry between the senator — who recently rose to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee— and his millionaire backer. It illustrates the way Menendez’s political clout has at times overlapped with Melgen’s financial investments.

There isn’t any direct evidence, but this looks mighty suspicious, especially when viewed as part of a pattern.  First, an eye doctor sets up shop as a port-security specialist at the same time he’s wooing a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who just happens to get interested in the Dominican Republic’s ability to protect shipping at the same time Melgen’s giving him private-jet rides to the DR.  Next, the eye doctor suddenly decides to invest in natural-gas conversions — and there is Senator Robert-On-The-Spot to sponsor a bill that would provide federal cash to companies involved in the effort.  I may not be a math genius like my son, but I can add two and two together.

To many of us, the NAT GAS proposal seemed unnecessary and a certain path to even more crony capitalism.  This shows just how justified those suspicions were.  The real question is whether the Senate Ethics Committee will find this objectionable, or whether they will want to protect business as usual.