Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Federal prosecutors take the fun out of politics

A soaking tub. That’s exactly why I want to be a U.S. senator.

Well, not just a soaking tub. “King bed, work area with Internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower, [and] views of courtyard or street,” as Sen. Bob Menendez specified in a 2010 email that caught the attention of federal investigators.

The New Jersey senator was asking his buddy Sal, a South Florida ophthalmologist, to book him a room at the Paris-Vendôme, a hotel described with lots of luxurious adjectives. Dr. Salomon Melgen obliged, ordering up a $1,536.96-a-night suite for Bob with a rain shower and all the fixings.

A federal indictment issued in New Jersey last week indicated that the senator’s itinerary happened to coincide with the arrival of two young female acquaintances at the very same Paris hotel. Like I said, it’s good to be a senator.

Menendez, according to the indictment, ran up a $4,934 bill, which Melgen covered by redeeming 649,611 American Express Rewards points, which would surely constitute the world record for bribes consummated with that particular currency.

Sen. Bob’s Parisian getaway was one of the less pricey allegations in the 68-page indictment handed down on April Fools’ Day. Federal prosecutors charged that Melgen invested close to a million bucks in Menendez, who in return used his office to “assist Melgen’s personal and pecuniary interests.”

Melgen, through his consulting company, gave $600,000 to a political “super PAC” with the money earmarked for the New Jersey senator’s reelection campaign. Which might seem an obscene amount of money for a Florida business to contribute to a New Jersey senator. But those kinds of over-the-top contributions have been legal since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

The feds, however, charged that Menendez managed to turn our system of legal bribery into the illegal kind, with a quid pro quo attached to the money. In return for contributions and gifts and exotic trips, including 19 free rides on the doc’s two private jets, the feds claim that Menendez intervened in a little Medicare problem plaguing the doctor. Well, not so little. He was accused of over-billing Medicare by $8,982,705.98.

Talk of a few million bucks worth of questionable Medicare claims won’t excite folks in South Florida, the veritable Medicare fraud capital of the known universe. The feds claim Menendez also intervened on behalf of one of Melgen’s other ventures, a port security operation in the Dominican Republic that he worried might be undermined by the U.S. government.

But what really impressed me were the array of other constituency services that the indictment claimed the senator from New Jersey provided the doctor, never mind that Melgen, from West Palm Beach, was not actually one of his constituents.

In 2007, the indictment stated, the senator’s staffers pressured the State Department to issue a student visa to a Brazilian model described anonymously in the indictment as Melgen’s “Girlfriend 1.”

The feds needed numbers to keep track of Melgen’s companions in urgent need of visas. Later, there was Girlfriend 2, a 22-year-old model from the Dominican Republic, who, along with her sister, wanted to come to the states to visit Melgen, who is 61 (and married), same age as fellow party boy Menendez.

Before Menendez stepped in, an embassy worker had rejected their visa applications, noting: “Siblings, 18 and 22 yrs old. No children. No previous travel. To go visit a friend in Florida. Neither is working. No solvency on their own. Not fully convinced of motives for travel.”

Senator Bob worked his magic. Suddenly, the insolvent sisters were able to produce a plausible motive. Perhaps they were in need of an eye exam. The indictment included a sweet little note to the doctor. Girlfriend 2 wrote, “Hello my love [Melgen], I write to remind you that you need to send me a copy of what Senator Bob Menendez’s office sent you, which I need for the embassy. And also remember the bank thing please. Thank you. A kiss.”

Then there was Girlfriend 3. She was Ukrainian and described in the indictment, of course, as an “an actress and a model.” Apparently, the State Department needed another bit of senatorial intervention before Girlfriend 3 was issued her visa.

Now, I’ve never met Salomon Melgen, but his photo does not depict someone who might be mistaken for George Clooney. His chubby face is not one that you might expect to be associated with international models and actresses. But if such romantic serendipity strikes once or twice or three times in a lucky guy’s life, apparently it’s good to have a friend like Bob in the U.S. Senate.

Even as his colleagues in Congress gridlocked over immigration, Menendez seemed to have crafted his own personal border control policies, with fast-track entry for young models and actresses with a special affinity for old rich guys.

In return for helping out his very wealthy friend with his business and romantic travails, federal investigators charged that the senator received those very hefty Super PAC contributions along with free trips down to Melgen’s joint in West Palm Beach or to his resort villa home in the Dominican Republic. But prosecutors must prove that his sleazy behavior amounted to bribery. That’s no easy task in an era when monied interests regard politicians as fungible assets.

“Prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” Menendez told reporters last week. Indeed, that’s not an easy distinction to draw since Citizens United.

The 2010 Supreme Court opinion in that case, which opened up American politics to unlimited globs of corporate money, dismissed warnings that Citizens United would lead to political corruption. “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Of course not. And I want all of you to know that if I ever get myself one of those very lucrative seats in the U.S. Senate, I promise to wash away the stench of corruption. Just as long as I’m able to do the washing in a limestone bath with a soaking tub and an enclosed rain shower.