Below is my column in The Hill on the indictment of Senator Robert Menendez for bribery, again. As predicted in this column, his colleagues are now expressing disgust at his corruption. However, make no mistake about it, Menendez is not being abandoned due to his corrupt inclination but his conspicuous consumption.
Here is the column:
The massive indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and his wife has shaken Washington.
As Senate Foreign Relations chairman, Menendez is one of the most powerful Democratic members of Congress, and someone who has long been a kingmaker in the party. He has also long been accused of open and insatiable corruption.
What made Menendez a standout in Washington was not his corrupt inclinations, but his utter audacity in following them. I was able to witness that signature conduct personally on the floor of the Senate.
In 2010, I defended a federal judge, Thomas Porteous, in his impeachment trial, against charges that he had taken gifts and misused his office for personal gain. The curious thing about Senate trials is that you have a jury composed of people you could strike for cause in a real court. Menendez was among those sitting in judgment of Porteous, but he wasn’t just another face in the Senate crowd — he stood out. It was like arguing a piracy case with Captain Jack Sparrow sitting on the jury.
Menendez himself would later go on trial in 2017 in a major bribery and fraud case involving luxury gifts allegedly exchanged for official favors. Most of us expected the worst when, during jury deliberations, one juror asked the court, “What is a senator?” Menendez dodged the bullet. The jury hung and the Justice Department dropped all charges.
Now Menendez has been slapped with a massive new bribery indictment. The facts are all too familiar, with a long list of lavish gifts allegedly made in exchange for favors.
The indictment details gold bars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, furnishings and other gifts. His wife was allegedly actively involved in this corruption conspiracy and is also facing criminal charges.
During the Porteous trial, I noted that, at the time of the underlying acts, the senators themselves were accepting free lunches. It was not until later that the rules changed on such gifts. Menendez now stands accused of accepting a host of gifts at that time, including an $8,000 free flight in October 2010, in addition to luxury trips to Paris and a Caribbean villa.
Yet Menendez still demanded the conviction of Porteous, even though the judge was never charged with bribery, and free lunches and the other gifts would not be enough to even register with Menendez.
The question is whether this level of corruption is now enough for Democrats. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently suggested a type of Goldilocks rule for corruption. He warned that people in Washington had better be careful if they want to crack down on the Biden family’s influence-peddling.
“If that’s the new criteria, there are a lot of folks in a lot of industries — not just in politics — where people have family members and relationships and they’re trying to parlay and get a little influence and benefit in that respect. That’s hardly unique.”
It would appear that the question is not corruption, but when a little corruption is “just right.”
If these allegations against Menendez are proven, then he violated Washington’s Goldilocks rule. It would mean that Menendez pursued gifts with a reckless abandon, endangering others whose corruption was more circumspect.
Consider the timeline: It would mean that during the Porteous trial, Menendez was allegedly accepting gifts while condemning and removing from office a judge accused of receiving gifts.
Later, after the jury hung in his first corruption trial, Menendez (according to the Justice Department) almost immediately started taking gifts from new sources.
In a town known for a certain finesse in influence peddling, Menendez broke with industry custom by allegedly accepting direct items like gold and a car. This is classic bribery stuff. There was no labyrinth of shell companies and accounts — just crude old-school corruption, with cash stuffed in clothing and gold bars squirreled away for a rainy day.
Where corrupt figures often refer to getting their beaks wet, Menendez allegedly took a headlong plunge into this pool of corruption. This city has not seen such low-grade alleged bribery since former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was found with $90,000 wrapped like a po boy in his freezer.
Like Jefferson, Menendez will need to be isolated as a pariah for his conspicuous consumption. Yet the public is still being played for chumps. This entire city floats on a sea of corruption as family members and associates sell influence and access to high-ranking officials. Menendez is notorious only for the size of his appetite and the extent of his audacity.
Newsom’s Goldilocks rule for graft is certainly compelling for many in this city. For most of us, it is the very source of the problem as politicians seek to get corruption “just right.”
So get ready for politicians to suddenly declare themselves “shocked, shocked” by the allegations against Menendez. These are the same people who made Menendez the head of the Foreign Relations Committee, twice. They gave him the power of leverage with countries where bribery is an accepted practice. It was like making a known arsonist the CEO of the International Paper Corporation.
In the end, the problem is not Menendez. It is the array of other politicians who enabled him while dismissing his reputation for corruption. To use Newsom’s words, Menendez is “hardly unique” for cashing in on his position. That is precisely the problem.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.