improperly help Melgen, a charge that is explosive, but difficult to prove.
That's why eyebrows rose at Friday's reports saying Menendez had urged federal officials to intervene on Melgen's behalf in a business dispute in the Dominican Republic. His actions last year were reported by the Miami Herald and New York Times.
Another critical question centers on why Menendez did not report his flights sooner, said Rob Walker, former chief counsel and staff director for the Senate and House ethics committees.
If Menendez shows that he simply forgot, Walker said in an interview, the issue will be "a blip."
But 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," said Walker, a Washington-based lawyer with the firm Wiley, Rein.
Knowingly and willfully choosing not to disclose such trips could be a felony, Walker said.
Menendez's office said Friday that the delay in repaying Melgen "was an oversight" rectified "as quickly as possible" after it was discovered.
Conservative websites have published stories alleging that Melgen flew Menendez to the Dominican Republic for trysts with prostitutes. Menendez has called those stories false.
"These are nameless, faceless, anonymous allegations," Menendez told television crews who questioned him Thursday night.
Earlier that day, as New Jersey's political class rode a train to Washington for a state Chamber of Commerce dinner, the aisles buzzed with chatter about Menendez. While saying he is not in trouble now, some passengers were already gaming out the possibilities. Thinking of broader implications for Democrats, they pointed ahead to Aug. 27: If Menendez were to resign by that date, his Senate seat could be filled in an election in November.
A resignation after that day, though, would help Republicans. Gov. Christie would get to appoint a replacement -- presumably a fellow Republican -- who would enjoy more than a year in office leading up to a 2014 election. In the closely divided Senate, Democrats can hardly afford to lose Menendez's seat.
All of which, of course, is nothing but talk: Menendez has not been charged with anything unethical, much less unlawful. New Jersey's history sets a high bar for scandals, too, and it would take a lot to pry the strong-willed senator out of office.
He has survived scrutiny before, cruising to victory in his 2006 Senate run even amid a federal inquiry into his financial arrangement with a nonprofit. He was never charged.
And even a congressional ethics finding does not necessarily unseat its subject. David Vitter (R., La.) remains in the Senate after being linked to high-end prostitutes. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D., N.Y.) won reelection after being admonished by a House ethics panel.
But New Jerseyans have seen plenty of public officials fall to scandal, including a recent Democratic senator. Robert Torricelli was forced to drop a reelection bid in 2002 after taking lavish gifts from a donor.
There are key differences. The controversy surrounding Torricelli peaked just months before he faced reelection. A grand jury was involved, and the Senate "severely admonished" him. When Democrats realized he could not win -- and might drag down others on the ticket -- they walked away, leaving him no buffer from crushing political and media pressure.
Menendez is nowhere near that point. No authorities have accused him of anything. Democrats have stood by him.
His political future may depend on whether any more news will test that loyalty, or if the initial furor soon dies down.
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