One thing you have to love about New Jersey: It’s a state that never ceases to laugh in the face of its many stereotypes. That was on display last week when the Garden State’s senior U.S. senator, Bob Menendez, dodged the political bullet of a lifetime — gaining a mistrial after the jury in his federal corruption trial broke 10-2 for acquittal. If you expected Menendez to be humble about his great escape, you’ve obviously never been sprung from a cage on Highway 9 into the seedy world of Jersey politics. Instead, Menendez spoke as if the 20th century’s notorious Jersey City political boss Frank Hague came back to life after binge-watching several seasons of The Sopranos.
“For those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat,” Menendez glowered outside the federal courthouse in Newark, “I know who you are and I won’t forget it.’’
For New Jersey’s political boss of the 21st century, South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross, the Menendez revenge rap was music to his ears, apparently. “I spoke to Senator Menendez, and I pledged my support for his re-election,” Norcross said shortly after the verdict, and the rest of the state Democratic establishment quickly fell into line behind the not-fully-in-the-clear legislator. That included New Jersey’s new straight-outta-Goldman-Sachs governor-elect Phil Murphy, who knows a can’t-miss investment — regardless of the ethics — when he sees one.
Totally forgotten in all this is that the senator’s 2-1/2-month trial established that Menendez had done most, if not all, of the things that federal prosecutors had accused him of. On one side of the equation, a longtime friend and political supporter, Florida eye doctor Solomon Melgen, not only donated and raised $750,000 over the years — yes, that’s a lot — to keep his buddy in office, but he treated the senator to lavish perks, including private jet travel to Florida and the Caribbean, even Paris, and stays at Melgen’s posh getaway in the Dominican Republic.
On the other side of the equation, Menendez used his office as senator to help his benefactor on multiple occasions; in 2012, when the senator was running for re-election and Melgen was pumping $300,000 into a pro-Menendez super PAC, Menendez went to bat for the donor in a dispute with federal regulators over Medicare reimbursements, taking it all the way to the then-Health and Human Services secretary. When Melgen had a dispute with Dominican officials over a port security contract, Menendez similarly badgered high-ranking State Department officials and convened a Senate committee hearing related to the dispute. He even intervened to get visas for Melgen’s girlfriends.
You know, I could have sworn that Menendez was elected to spend his days fighting for his constituents in New Jersey, who have bigger problems with health care than whether a millionaire eye doctor 1,000 miles away is getting paid. But the senator sold his time and his energy to the highest bidder, his constituents be damned. The thing is, that’s what we’ve come to expect from our elected officials, especially in Washington: a system rigged to do the bidding of well-connected millionaires and billionaires, not regular folks. Call it business as usual. So usual, in fact, that 10 out of 12 citizens on the jury decided that selling your office to a rich friend isn’t even a crime anymore.
How lucky is Bob Menendez? In today’s climate, a senator accused of inappropriate sexual behavior, even if just one occasion with one woman, will be abandoned by his party (at least if he’s a Democrat) and many of his partisans, amid calls for his resignation. And in a lot of these cases, that’s how it should be. But Menendez didn’t do that, he only “groped” the public’s trust, again and again. Unlike some politicians, he didn’t brag about grabbing the p-word, he only grabbed a free seat on a rich donor’s private jet.
Political sex scandals and political corruption scandals have something in common: They tend to know no ideological bounds, afflicting liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Yet we’ve baked in a much higher tolerance for corruption. Why do we put up with it? Didn’t we just live through a bat-guano crazy presidential election in 2016 in which voters in both parties rebelled against the party elites and their money-drenched ways, finally resulting — for better or worse — in the current, um, situation at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? But Donald Trump didn’t “drain the swamp,” and now there’s a catch-and-release program for swamp creatures such as Menendez.
Clearly, a good lawyer can often convince a jury that while you may be furious in the voting booth that “everybody does it,” if “everybody does it,” then maybe it’s not a crime. But let’s be clear: Menendez got a huge assist from a thoroughly corrupt standard that was created — irony of ironies — by the pro-business, conservative Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee. It was Roberts and the court’s majority who just last year set the impossibly high bar for the government to convict corrupt politicians, in the case of Virginia’s disgraced former governor, Bob McDonnell.
Other than the fact that McDonnell is a Republican and Menendez is a Democrat, the two cases are strikingly similar. Like Menendez, the Virginia governor and his wife had a sugar daddy — a peddler of dietary supplements — who showered the couple with more than $150,000 in gifts, such as a Rolex watch, and loans, while McDonnell used his clout to introduce the businessman to state officials who could help him. But Roberts, writing the majority opinion, insisted that the governor getting gifts and giving favors didn’t constitute “official acts.” Under the new Roberts rules of political disorder, practically anything short of accepting a white envelope filled with cash on videotape and looking straight into the camera and promising a vote or a bill’s signature in return is now A-OK. That impossibly high standard — passed on by the judge in the Menendez trial — surely weighed on the 10 jurors favoring his acquittal.
In other words, the judges at the top of our crooked political pyramid created a world where most corruption is no longer illegal. Still, Menendez isn’t 100 percent out of the woods. Prosecutors could try the senator a second time, although given the outcome that seems doubtful. Senate leaders have promised to jump-start their own ethics probe of Menendez that was put on hold because of the criminal case, but Congress doesn’t have a strong recent history of disciplining itself. The Democratic Party pooh-bahs in New Jersey could have spoken out against corruption — yeah, right — and rallied behind an alternative to Menendez, but that train has already left the station, headed in the wrong direction.
So the last line of defense to prevent Menendez from getting away with it is the New Jersey voter. That’s a longshot — the money and the clout of the bosses will scare away most possible primary challengers on the Democratic side (and any Republican in the fall will be carrying the heavy, heavy package of Trump and Chris Christie). But let’s hope, however naively, that a true populist can emerge and give Menendez a run for his, ahem, money. And if he’s smart, that challenger won’t call Menendez’s misdeeds “corruption” but rather “groping the public’s trust” — and maybe that will help folks rise up and say that we’re not OK with what he did to us.