(MCT) — WASHINGTON — The leader of a government watchdog group called out Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on Thursday, saying that he violated ethics rules by taking two free trips on a friend’s plane in 2010 but that he may avoid prosecution nonetheless because he paid the charter rate of $58,500 for the trips last month.
“What he did was he waited to get caught and then he paid for it,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said about Menendez’s decision to pay Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye surgeon and Democratic donor, for two flights to the Dominican Republic. “He did violate the rules.”
There was no immediate comment from Menendez’s office, but a spokesman said Wednesday, a day after FBI agents raided Melgen’s office in West Palm Beach, that the senator decided to make the payment after a review of his travel and consultation with an attorney.
After delivering a speech Thursday night at the annual New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington, D.C., Menendez was pursued by reporters asking whether he slept with prostitutes and why he waited so long to pay for the flights. He said nothing before entering an elevator.
Menendez’s office said travel on private jets does not have to be disclosed if it is paid for out of a senator’s personal funds, just as travel on commercial airlines for personal reasons does not. Before Senate rules were changed in 2007, senators were allowed to accept privately funded trips. Menendez’s prior disclosure statements show trips in 2004 to Florida funded by the AFL-CIO and to Chicago funded by the Hispanic Leadership Institute, for example.
Sloan said senators who now want to accept private travel must first get clearance from the Select Committee on Ethics, then disclose it as a gift on personal disclosure forms. Menendez’s 2010 report, filed in May 2011, does not list any gifts.
The rules do allow for members who receive items of value to reimburse the giver, but that reimbursement has to be “prompt,” said Robert Walker, a former chief counsel of the Ethics Committee who is now in private practice.
“If an individual wants to say reimbursement has taken it off the gift table, that reimbursement needs to be prompt,” Walker said. “The word ‘prompt’ is in the gift rule.”
He said reimbursement more than two years later does not meet the definition of “prompt.”
Sloan, whose nonprofit organization has pressed for several ethics complaints against members of Congress, including former Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate relationships with House pages, said it was unlikely that Menendez would face serious repercussions, however.
“In six months, there might be a letter from the Ethics Committee admonishing him at worst, but they also might not even do that because there’s a pending FBI investigation,” Sloan said.
Walker said he was not so sure.
“Here’s something an investigator will want to know: Why pay for it now?” Walker said. “This is not something that’s just going to drop because he repaid the money.”
Melgen’s attorney, Dean L. Wilbur, said in a statement that authorities have not said what they are investigating. He told reporters in Florida he did not believe it was related to Menendez, The Newark Star-Ledger reported.
Other published reports said that authorities on the scene included the inspector general’s office from the Department of Health and Human Services, which investigates possible misuse of federal health care funds.
A Menendez spokesman, Paul Brubaker, said on Wednesday night that a review of the senator’s travel was done after Middlesex County Republican Chairman Sam Thompson sent a letter in November to the Ethics Committee asking for an investigation into the flights and rumors that Menendez had had trysts with prostitutes at Melgen’s home in a Dominican resort.
Thompson is a state senator, and for many years was an assemblyman in the district represented by state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, who was Menendez’s Republican opponent in last year’s U.S. Senate campaign. After that review, Menendez consulted with his attorney and decided to pay Melgen $58,500 on Jan. 4 for two flights taken in August and September 2010, Brubaker said. Brubaker said the senator could have sought to use an exemption in the rules for flights taken with close friends.
Menendez’s office said in a statement on Wednesday that allegations he consorted with prostitutes, which originated with an anonymous tipster and were highlighted by the conservative website The Daily Caller, were “manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false.”
Sloan said her office was contacted last year by the tipster, who used the name Peter Williams, but she came to doubt his veracity after Williams would only communicate by email and resisted efforts to meet in person or talk on the phone.
“You have an anonymous source who could be anybody,” she said. “It makes you suspicious.”
Menendez’s fellow Democrats were standing by him in Washington on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a news conference that Menendez was his friend and an “outstanding senator.”
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., told reporters he thought “Bob would survive with his good work.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Menendez is a “fine senator.”
“He’s a man of integrity and that’s all I’m going to say,” Schumer said.