Menendez Mess Expands to Democratic Old Guard

Federal prosecutors ensnare Harry Reid in corruption probe of New Jersey senator

Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader, tried to pressure the White House under President Barack Obama in an overbilling case that is now the centerpiece of the charges against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

The latest in the case against Menendez, whose trial starts Wednesday, was made public in filings in federal courts.

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Menendez stands accused of inappropriately using his office to help campaign donor Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist who plied Menendez with campaign cash but also expensive trips to the Caribbean and Paris.

The involvement of Reid, however, was a surprise to some.

Menendez enlisted Reid in November 2011 to help pressure the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, according to Bloomberg News. Melgen wanted the federal government to reverse its ruling that Melgen owed $8.9 million for overbilling Medicare.

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“At that time, the Majority Leader reached out to the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, informing her that Menendez was upset about how a Florida ophthalmologist was being treated by CMS and asking that she call the agency,” according to prosecutors.

But the deputy chief of staff did not get the White House involved because the dispute was between a doctor and a division of the Department of Heath and Human Services.

Menendez is also accused of helping Melgen secure visas for girlfriends in exchange for trips and campaign contributions. Menendez faces 14 counts of bribery and conspiracy.

There is no indication from court filings that Reid knew of Menendez’s alleged arrangement with his donor. The corrupt relationship allegedly goes back to 2006, when Menendez won his first Senate election. Menendez had been appointed earlier in the year when Democrat Jon Corzine vacated his seat to become governor.

Prosecutors also indicated a heaping helping of other evidence will be used against Menendez. CNN reported late Thursday that “email correspondence, flight manifests, hotel bills, credit card statements, and Federal Election Commission filings will all be deployed as evidence of an alleged bribery scheme carried out for seven years by … Menendez.”

Lawyers for Melgen and Menendez said the disclosure was “inflammatory” but irrelevant.

The case could be crucial for Senate Democrats because Republicans have only a 52-48 majority. If Menendez is away at trial, the GOP could take another pass at repealing the Affordable Care Act, which lost by only one vote in late July, 51-49.

Menendez’s attorneys want to try to keep him in Washington, not New Jersey.

“Both Sen. Menendez and the citizens who elected him, have an unquestionable interest in the senator’s continued performance of the core legislative functions that the Constitution assigns to him alone,” his lawyers wrote. “[A] trial schedule without some non-prejudicial accommodation of this dilemma directly interferes with the independent operation of the legislative branch by putting Sen. Menendez in the position of choosing between his individual rights to due process and confrontation on the one hand, and from discharging his core legislative duties on the other hand.”

Nevertheless, the trial will proceed, after about three years.

If convicted, it’s unsure how quickly Senate Democrats would work with the Senate GOP majority to remove Menendez from his seat.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) would choose the replacement, who is sure to be a Republican. That senator would face the voters in November 2018.

(photo credit, homepage image: Senate Democrats, Flickr; photo credit, article image: Glyn Lowe, Flickr)

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Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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