Scandal(s) du jour

Break finally over, Wade read from an editorial in Tuesday’s Investor’s Business Daily titled “Drillgate: Secretary Salazar’s Cover-Up.” It alleges that Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, or more precisely his chief of staff, delayed release of results of public comment showing that, by a margin of two to one, commenters (530,000 of them) want oil and natural-gas drilling.

I turned off the radio, returned to my newspapers, and there, on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, was still another scandal-in-the-making.

According to reporter Damian Paletta, New Jersey Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez wrote a letter, dated July 21, 2009, to Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke asking him for help in obtaining approval for a purchaser to acquire a small New Jersey bank — First BankAmericano — threatened with shutdown. Menendez, a member of the Senate’s Banking Committee, neglected to mention that the bank’s chairman and vice chairman were major contributors of his. The sale of the bank would have salvaged part of their investment.

Bernanke and his Fed didn’t help, and the bank failed on July 31.

Did Sen. Menendez retaliate against Bernanke? Did he have anything negative to say about Bernanke in the Banking Committee hearing considering a second term for Bernanke? That hearing was last December, five months after Bernanke had ignored Menendez’s plea for help. The New Jersey senator voted for Bernanke and said of him, “He did bring us back from the brink of a depression.” During deliberations before the full Senate, Menendez again voted yes, and told his colleagues, "To vote against confirmation could unnerve investors and exacerbate economic uncertainty in the marketplace, which is exactly what we do not need at this time."

What caught my eye about the Menendez story was that one of the players, the aforementioned vice chairman of the bank, was a New Jersey state senator named Raymond Lesniak. I interviewed Lesniak, a friend of Bill Clinton’s and also a big Clinton contributor and fundraiser, when I was writing a book on Clinton’s post-presidency.

Lesniak had been co-chairman of the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign in New Jersey and stayed close to Clinton — “I was there with him when he was impeached,” he told me when we talked in 2006.

Lesniak described to me a fundraiser he hosted for Menendez in September 2006. Four hundred people attended, $1,000 a head for a place in a tent outside his house in Elizabeth, N.J.; $10,000 a head for the 50 people who mingled with guest-of-honor and speaker Bill Clinton in Lesniak’s house. Jon Corzine (D), then New Jersey governor, was also there. (Menendez won that race against the son of former Gov. Thomas Kean.)

Lesniak had lots of great Clinton stories. Learning that Clinton was coming to New Jersey to speak in October 2001, Lesniak decided to set up a golf game for the former president at the exclusive Baltursol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. Lesniak wasn’t a member, so he asked a friend who was to help. The man called the powers that be at the club and he soon called Lesniak to tell him, “No go. It’s a members-only day.” Lesniak told me how insulted he was. “So they wouldn’t let the president of the United States play. ... This is how stuffy this crowd is.”

When he played golf with Clinton — as he did on many occasions over the years — Lesniak would often give Clinton Cuban cigars, which he happily smoked while playing. (“I didn’t tell him they were Cuban,” Lesniak said, “but he could tell from the first puff.”)

It should be an interesting story to follow, especially because Lesniak is in the cast.

It’s a story that Republicans will certainly not let die. Menendez is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It’s his job to make certain that his party’s Senate candidates are successful in this November’s midterms.

As for tomorrow’s scandal news: Rumors have been swirling for days that a New York Times piece about New York’s Gov. David Paterson will be full of such embarrassing, even shocking personal scandal that the Democrat would be forced to resign. No doubt I’ll hear about it on Don Wade’s show as I make the morning coffee.