New Jersey residents, political and Jewish religious leaders are questioning the validity of leaked allegations of corruption by the US Justice Department concerning Senior NJ Senator Robert Menendez, a popular politician who has always been a strong supporter of Israel, no more so than now, with the Iran nuclear negotiations in flux and focus.
“What seems wholly inappropriate is to have a case (against Senator Menendez) and for our Justice Department to leak it,” said Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood, President of NORPAC, a bi-partisan Political Action Committee to support candidates who support Israel. “That is unethical conduct and actually there should be an inquiry into that.”
Now in his second term, Senator Menendez, 61, ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, listed as the most productive member of the 113th Congress according to Time Magazine has the top score for government transparency for Congress two years running from GovTrack (a government transparency website). Yet it is during those two years the US Justice Department has been investigating him for corruption.
Chouake said, “When you are an Attorney General and you’re going to bring a case of this magnitude against one of the most prominent people in the country you had better have a very good case and all your ducks in a row and when you bring it, you bring it. A reputable Attorney General does not leak cases.”
Speculation abounds as to the timing of the announcement. Sen. Menendez has been loud and very clear on his support for sanctions against Iran and asks for a good hard look at the negotiations. At the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) meeting on policy for a strong American-Israeli relationship, his speech garnered the most applause. The Senator’s stand on sanctions and also on Cuba (he opposes reestablishing relations with them), have made him very unpopular with the Administration. So people are wondering—even though he supports Obama’s stance on immigration.
Another perceived slap at the Administration was assumed to be the introduction of “The End Modern Slavery Initiative Act of 2015” a bi-partisan bill introduced by Menendez with Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee (present chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) on February 24, just as President Obama was meeting with Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, who uses slave labor to prepare for the World Cup in 2022.
At the time JLNJ went to press, charges had not yet been brought. However, leaders of the Jewish community have already expressed varying degrees of support for the Senator.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in Riverdale told the JLNJ/BWC, “I was deeply moved by Senator Menendez’s speech at AIPAC (defined already) this year, and I am inspired by his courage to take on the administration on issues that he feels deeply about—especially protecting Israel.
“My thoughts regarding the Justice Department, is that the Senator needs to be considered innocent until there is compelling evidence against him, but that the Justice Department needs to be considered innocent of any nefarious motives until there is any compelling evidence against it. For now, I have not seen any evidence suggesting the Justice Department is on a witch hunt against the Senator. Possible, yes, but I’m not ready to go there without seeing evidence.”
However, Dr. Chouake finds the Justice Department at fault. “When you have a case that’s two to three years old and you leak it, it’s really unfortunate that you have people at the Justice Department who would do such a thing. This might be the worst Justice Department since Nixon.”
Chouake said, “What it’s done is make everybody believe this is a totally political case, not a case about right and wrong, but a case about discordant disagreement on policy between the senator and the administration. That may not be true but there’s a responsibility to protect the Office of the Justice Department and this inappropriate conduct damages that. When you see wrong conduct like this I think that everybody turns their head and says, ‘this is scary.’”
However, others are taking a more definitive stance. Rabbi Menachem Genack, of Englewood, founding chairman of NORPAC, CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, and leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, does not think what is happening is necessarily kosher.
He told JLNJ/BWC, “Of course we don’t know what motivated the Justice Department to bring these charges against him but if you read any newspaper…you know all experts in this area they say the government has a very tough case to prove. Whether there was just friendship with this doctor which makes it completely legal or otherwise, it’s a very difficult case.”
Rabbi Genack referred to several articles appearing in local and national news outlets stating that the prosecution is basing most of its allegations on the supposition that Menendez’s 20-year relationship with Florida resident Salomon Melgen, an ophthalmologist, included payoffs and undue influence in some actions taken by government department decision makers. “Having said that, it’s very strange that the Justice Department should leak a story when they haven’t even brought these charges—given that it’s a judgment call. I would have thought that they would not have brought these charges against a sitting senator. I find it very strange that these charges were brought at all.”
Rabbi Genack also agreed with several Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, about the timing of the news, just after Senator Menendez’s speech at AIPAC on March 2.
“His speech about Iran was so impassioned; it was just an extraordinary speech. Everybody was up on their feet clapping. He said that he would not be intimidated as long as he has a vote and a voice. We didn’t know exactly what he meant but we presume what he meant were these (potential) charges in terms of him opposing the President’s position on an Iran deal.”
Timing also comes into question, said Rabbi Genack, because this is just a few weeks before Senator Menendez is due to present bi-partisan legislation he penned with Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, The Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act of 2015, which gives Congressional oversight to any agreement with Iran.
“Senator Menendez (born of Cuban immigrants) has butted heads against this administration on a lot of different things…but especially on Iran and frankly at the Democratic caucus, the President said, ‘You don’t just listen to your donors,’ as if to say don’t just listen to your Jewish donors and Menendez stood up and took offense, correctly so… Both the timing and the quality of these charges certainly gives a person pause to think about that.”
There are already reports that some of the potential charges have already been dropped, some because they are beyond the statute of limitations, others because of Menendez’s lawyers invoking the Speech or Debate clause of the US Constitution.
There are others who are taking a more political stance such as State Senator Lorretta Weinberg, “Senator Menendez has indeed been a good friend to the Jewish people and an excellent advocate for all of New Jersey. As of this moment there are no charges against him, and even if there were, he is presumed innocent.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, told the JLNJ that he has faith in the outcome. “Agudath Israel has enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Senator Menendez over many years, and we’re saddened by the charges that have been brought against him. But, rather than engage in speculations, we prefer to allow the justice system to function and the case to run its course. We will not be surprised, and will be very happy, to see him vindicated in the end.”
Rabbi Marc Dratch, founder of JSafe (The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment), preferred not to comment.
With Senator Menendez himself stating publicly, “I’m not going anywhere,” Tricia Enright, Communications Director for Senator Menendez, as well as staffers who refused to cooperate with investigators, released the following statement, “As we have said before, we believe all of the Senator’s actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that. Any actions taken by Senator Menendez or his office have been to appropriately address public policy issues and not for any other reason.
“The Senator has counted Dr. Melgen as one of his closest personal friends for decades. The two have spent holidays together and have gone to each other’s family funerals and weddings and have exchanged personal gifts. As has been reported, the start of this investigation is suspect. We know many false allegations have been made about this matter, allegations that were ultimately publicly discredited. We also know that the official investigation of this matter is ongoing, and therefore cannot address allegations being made anonymously.”
By Anne Phyllis Pinzow