Watchdogs pressuring Menendez

Government watchdog groups say Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) should recuse himself from congressional deliberations on Medicare billing and port security in the Dominican Republic.

These groups say Menendez should steer clear of these issues while the Senate Ethics Committee investigates whether he improperly helped a donor who took him on private plane trips to the Dominican Republic. 

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Senate Democratic leaders have kept their distance from Menendez since the controversy surrounding the New Jersey lawmaker has intensified. They have not had any private meetings with him to ask about the allegations swirling around his relationship with Florida eye surgeon Salomon Melgen, according to a Democratic aide. 

Menendez last week told CNN that allegations he solicited women during trips to the Dominican Republican are “totally unsubstantiated” and “absolutely false.” 

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday that Menendez “has given us assurances that there is no substance to these charges,” but he was apparently referring to Menendez’s public statements. 

Menendez is a leader on immigration reform, a top priority for President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress. It remains to be seen whether Menendez’s role in the discussions will be reduced as the allegations continue to attract headlines. 

The New Jersey senator expects to have an ongoing role in the daily negotiations on immigration reform, according to a Democratic aide.

Menendez recently told Univision that he has not acted improperly. 

“Nobody has bought me, No. 1. Never, in 20 years that I have been in Congress, never has this been suggested that this has been possible. Never in 40 years of public life,” he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has resisted a call from The New York Times editorial page to force Menendez to step down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez took over the gavel after John Kerry left the Senate to become secretary of State. 

Watchdog groups, including left-leaning ones such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, say it would be premature for Reid to take the chairmanship away from Menendez. But they say the New Jersey senator should not be involved in matters related to the Ethics Committee probe of his relationship with Melgen.  

“He should be recusing himself from any discussions or negotiations about port security in the Dominican Republic,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which sent letters to the FBI and Justice Department in July seeking an investigation of Menendez. 

The Times reported Menendez tried to pressure the Department of Homeland Security not to donate port security equipment to the Dominican Republic because it threatened a lucrative security contract belonging to a company run by Melgen. 

The Washington Post reported last week that Menendez contacted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last week to complain about its finding that Melgen had overbilled the government $8.9 million in Medicare reimbursements.  

Menendez’s actions attracted little attention until the FBI raided Melgen’s offices last month. Menendez’s office subsequently announced that he had reimbursed Melgen nearly $60,000 for the cost of two trips on a private plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010. Menendez’s failure to disclose these trips previously has prompted a probe by the Ethics panel. 

The senator, who was easily reelected to a third term in November, has said his failure to reimburse Melgen in a timely manner “fell through the cracks.”

Sloan said Menendez should stay away from issues related to Medicare billing, as well. 

Menendez is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare. President Obama is expected to call on Congress this year to find ways to reduce healthcare spending by improving efficiency and reducing waste and fraud in Medicare.

 But watchdog groups don’t want Menendez as part of the discussion.  

“While there’s an investigation pending, he should recuse himself from those issues,” Sloan said. “He shouldn’t be writing any more letters on anyone’s behalf on Medicare fraud.”

Mary Boyle, vice president of communications at Common Cause, said “it would be prudent” for Menendez “to abstain from anything that is related to the areas of investigation that have been outlined in great detail to the press.”

Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, said Menendez should “recuse himself if there is a conflict of interest that could cast the public’s doubt on any decision he might make.”

A spokeswoman for Menendez declined to say whether he would recuse himself.

Good-government groups have stopped short of calling on Menendez to give up his Foreign Relations Committee gavel. They say that would not be appropriate unless there is a criminal indictment brought against Menendez. 

Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian, said a chairman has not had to relinquish his chairmanship because of an indictment in recent history. 

Senate Democratic leaders are in a tough situation because of Menendez. The allegations against him could blow up into a public relations disaster, but until the Justice Department or the Ethics Committee releases their findings, there is little they can do. 

Democratic leaders would prefer to let the Ethics Committee get to the bottom of the allegations.

Reid has repeatedly fended off questions about Menendez’s contact and last week suggested to The Associated Press that his colleague should keep quiet.

“We all have these issues come to us,” Reid told the news service. “We have to work our way through it. … I would suggest to my friend that he shouldn’t get into this today.”

Menendez late last week met with journalists from Hispanic media outlets at the Capitol to push back on the Medicare report in the Post.