Under fire New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez got some key words of support Sunday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said he had the “utmost confidence” in his fellow Democrat, even while confirming that the Senate ethics committee is taking a look at Menendez’s actions.
“I have confidence he did nothing wrong, but that's what investigations are all about,” Reid said.
He also indicated that Menendez will remain the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a post he was confirmed to last week, making him the face of U.S. foreign policy on Capitol Hill.
“He was a leader in the House. He's been a leader in the Senate. He's chairman of that committee. He'll do a wonderful job,” Reid said on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” according to a transcript provided by Reid’s office. “He's also an integral part of what we do with immigration reform.”
Reid added, “As to the rest of the investigation, that will have to be handled the way they're all handled around here, in-depth.” The Ethics Committee, he said, is “taking a look at it.” (The top Republican on the committee had indicated as much late last week).
As ethics allegations swirl and Menendez's political future is called into question, Reid’s support is critical. Political insiders from both parties told the Inquirer this week that Menendez appears safe for now, but that further revelations could cause potentially career-threatening damage.
Stephanopoulos asked if Reid was OK with Menendez continuing to serve as the investigation into his action continues.
“He has been and will be a great member of that committee,” Reid said.
Menendez has admitted taking two roundtrip flights from South Florida eye doctor Salmon Melgen in 2010, and failing to disclose them or pay for them until Jan. 4, more than two years later. He paid Melgen $58,500 for the trips to the Dominican Republic only after New Jersey Republicans had raised concerns with the Senate ethics committee.
Menendez also urged federal officials to intervene in the Dominican to help Melgen with a business dispute there, news reports this week said, adding to the questions about the relationship between the senator and his friend and heavy donor. Melgen had invested in a business that had a contract to scan cargo at Dominican ports, but the deal was held up in a dispute. Menendez pushed U.S. officials to help enforce the contract, which the New York Times reported could be worth $500 million.
So far the plane trips are the most concrete ethics concern facing Menendez, though his advocacy on Melgen’s behalf opens the door to bigger problems.
If there was "some improper purpose for the trip, or it was linked to something like a request for official action ... if the facts show that there was some reason for Sen. Menendez to not want anyone to know about this trip, that's a much more serious story," Rob Walker, former chief counsel and staff director for the Senate and House ethics committees, told the Inquirer.
Menendez has also faced unsubstantiated accusations linking him to prostitutes in the Dominican, but so far no credible, verified evidence has emerged. Menendez has called those allegations "false."