For New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, it was an unforgettable
It began with his colleagues voting this son of Cuban immigrants into one of the most influential seats in the Senate, the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee. By the end, the FBI had raided the office of his close friend and donor, news crews lurked outside his Washington home, and reporters chased him down a hotel hallway, firing questions not about Iran and immigration, but about plane flights and prostitutes.
Whether this was just one brutal week or the start of a career unraveling depends on a question many in New Jersey politics are wondering: Is there anything more?
If the extent of Menendez's missteps are two previously undisclosed flights he took on a plane owned by South Florida eye surgeon Salomon Melgen, the Democratic senator will likely escape with little long-term damage, political insiders, observers, and ethics experts said.
"A politician taking free trips on a plane and getting caught and has to pay it back? Tell me something I don't know yet," said Patrick Murray, head of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, characterizing the likely reaction of most New Jerseyans.
Despite the national attention now on the allegations around Menendez, seven political insiders, including Democrats and Republicans, along with two ethics experts, agreed with Murray. One critical point: Menendez has nearly six years before he is up for reelection.
But if more serious problems lurk -- and news reports Friday hinted that Menendez's ties with Melgen may have blended into his work in the Senate -- the fallout could threaten his chairmanship, if not his political career.
At the very least, it could also undercut his role as a key figure in the bipartisan push for immigration reform.
"Anytime you read the name of a senator in the same article with the word FBI, it's a big deal," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, an independent ethics-watchdog group.
The scope and target of the FBI probe is unclear. The Miami Herald has reported that the raid of Melgen's offices Tuesday focused on potential Medicare fraud. Melgen is a prominent Menendez donor, but there has been no official indication that Menendez is a target of a criminal inquiry.
"Sen. Menendez has been targeted before by politically-motivated false allegations," said a statement from his office. "He will continue to maintain his focus on doing the job the people of New Jersey elected him to do."
Menendez has admitted that he did not report two flights on Melgen's private plane in 2010 and did not reimburse Melgen until a month ago, paying $58,500 for the two round-trips to the Dominican Republic.
Though unsubstantiated claims linking Menendez to prostitutes have garnered more headlines, the 2010 flights pose the most concrete ethics problem for him so far. The unreported flights could be an ethics violation or worse.
The top Republican on the Senate ethics panel said the committee was eyeing the news. But historically, the penalties that committee has imposed for a delayed reimbursement have been small.
More serious damage would occur, though, if additional unpaid-for trips emerge, or if evidence indicates that Menendez used his Senate position to
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