For Menendez, questions, pressure, keep building

NJ Sen. Robert Menendez employed as an unpaid intern in his Senate office an illegal immigrant and registered sex offender who has now been arrested by immigration authorities, The Associated Press has learned. The Homeland Security Department instructed federal agents to wait weeks and not to arrest him until after Election Day, a U.S. official involved in the case told the AP. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON -- The pressure is building on New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez.

For the second time in less than two weeks he is on the front page of The New York Times, and not in a good way. The Times has another story today about efforts from Menendez’s office to help the senator’s friend and donor Salomon Melgen.

This comes after a Times editorial on Saturday called for Menendez to be stripped of his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It has now been nearly two weeks since the Jan. 30 FBI raid on Melgen’s South Florida offices that first raised questions about the ties between the Democratic senator and big-spending donor, and stories about the two keep coming. On Sunday the ethics allegations were fodder for some of the biggest morning political talk shows.

So far, fellow Democrats are standing with Menendez, a key to his political survival. But the drip-drip-drip of news reports threatens to erode support. When I spoke with political insiders after the Menendez story first broke into widespread circulation, members of both parties said he would survive if the only issue was the two unpaid-for trips to the Dominican that Melgen provided Menendez in 2010.

But they all questioned what else might come out, and if it would appear to be something more sinister than an accounting oversight -- as Menendez has characterized his two-year delay in repaying Melgen $58,500 for the two roundtrip flights on the doctor’s private plane.

The Times has now written twice about Menendez’s effort to help Melgen, an eye doctor who also had a stake in a security company with a contract to screen cargo at Dominican ports. Menendez twice personally prodded federal officials to push Dominican leaders to enforce the contract, potentially worth $500 million, according to the Times, as it was held up in a dispute.

The Times today reported that a Menendez aide also e-mailed U.S. customs about the issue. The aide sought to discourage the U.S. from donating port security equipment to the Dominican, the Times wrote, saying the office was concerned that the equipment might be less effective than the private contractor. The e-mails do not mention Melgen’s company by name.

Menendez’s efforts on this issue have the potential to be especially damaging given that they directly touch on his foreign affairs chairmanship, though he has insisted that he has done nothing wrong.

“Nobody has bought me, No. 1. Nobody. Never,” Menendez told Univision last week.

It’s unclear if the FBI probe is looking at him, or is focusing on Melgen. Reports from Miami indicate that the late-January raid was focused on potential Medicare fraud involving the doctor.

But news agencies are circling Menendez, and raising concerns.

The Times report comes days after the Washington Post reported that Menendez also questioned federal officials about how they were dealing with Melgen in a dispute over $8.9 million in Medicare charges from Melgen’s office. On Sunday the Star-Ledger showed that Melgen, who lives in South Florida, sent generous checks to Democratic committees in Camden, Passaic, Essex and Union counties. That money is in addition to tens of thousands of dollars Melgen and his family donated directly to Menendez, and hundreds of thousands the doctor sent to a Super PAC that then funneled money to Menendez’s re-election efforts.

It adds up to a series of questions that have grown, not shrunk, with time. The Senate ethics committee is said to be eyeing Menendez’s actions, though the scope of its inquiry is not clear.

So far, Democrats have sided with Menendez. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has publicly backed him. On Meet the Press Sunday, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Menendez has “given us assurance that there is no substance to these charges,” and declined to comment further, citing the ethics committee’s inquiry.

Democratic support is critical. Should the party apparatus step away from the senator or even chastise him, the pressure on him would be immense. That was the final blow for former New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli.

If support slipped, one of the first things he could lose could be his chairmanship of the committee charged with overseeing U.S. interactions around the globe -- making Menendez a figure with an international profile that may not be able to withstand a persistent cloud.

But here is one key from Menendez’s perspective: he just won re-election has six years until he faces voters again. He has time to put this issue behind him, provided it doesn’t keep spreading.

The ethics inquiry gives fellow Democrats cover as they face questions about Menendez. They can simply refer to that panel’s work and decline to comment on an ongoing issue. (It’s unclear the extent of any investigation).

There is no indication that Democrats are distancing themselves from Menendez and so far Republicans have held back. Several GOP senators have been offered a chance to comment on the issue and have largely demurred.

The question for Menendez is how long that silence and support will shield him if new information keeps coming and if his name keeps appearing on front pages and Sunday shows.