In-Depth Washington Post Sunday Story Presents Unflattering Picture of Senator Bob Menendez

Today the Sunday edition of The Washington Post published a rather lengthy and comprehensive piece called, “For Robert Menendez, a senator set apart, closeness to rich donor draws scrutiny.” The piece, which appears on the front cover of the paper’s print edition and spans over five digital pages online, examines many topics, including Menendez’s early days in New Jersey politics, how he is viewed in the US Senate, his relationship with the Obama administration, and the issues and investigations surrounding his relationship with friend and donor, Dr. Salomón Melgen, a wealthy South Florida eye doctor and the chairman and co-founder the of Miami-based VOXXI online news site (NOTE: since this story broke in January, VOXXI now lists Melgen as a “co-founder” instead of a “founder.” Our initial stories had Melgen listed as a founder of the site, since at the time of publication, that is what the VOXXI site originally said.)

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While the Post story presents a rather detailed picture of Menendez, the Senate’s only Latino Democrat, and his rise to national politics, many moments in the piece come across as unflattering. Here are just several examples:

The Post ran the following video from 2007, and reported the context about the clip:

Menendez’s brusque style has strained his relations even with close allies. At a tense meeting with some of the country’s leading immigration activists in 2007, for instance, he accused them of being a “punching bag” for conservatives who were pushing to impose strict limits on the rights of citizens and legal immigrants to bring close family members into the United States.

“I have to say, I’m disappointed in all of you,” he told a gathering of grim-faced activists, who were seated on couches and standing around his Senate office.

When one of the advocates, Karen Narasaki, tried to dispel the awkwardness by thanking Menendez for his work, he cut her off. “Please, let’s save the thank-yous. I really don’t want to hear them,” he said as Narasaki began to cry. Menendez handed her a tissue. The exchange was caught on video by a crew filming for a documentary, “Last Best Chance,” about the failed immigration overhaul efforts of 2007.

Still, Narasaki said later, she views Menendez as a “knight in shining armor” of the immigrant rights movement. And other advocates see the senator’s stubbornness as part of what makes him an effective protector of their interests in the current bipartisan talks. “He is our champion,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza. “People admire his personal story and the fact that he’s never forgotten his roots.”

The story says the 59-year-old Menendez is one of the least wealthiest Senators in Congress, who “had grown up without money and forged a career in the rough-edged landscape of New Jersey machine politics rather than the refined elegance of high society. He needed the rich as much — maybe more — than they needed him.”

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The central issue is presented in this part of the story:

Now Menendez’s relationship with one of his wealthy patrons has drawn the scrutiny of the Senate Ethics Committee and a federal grand jury in Miami, which, according to three people familiar with the investigation, is examining his role in advocating for Melgen’s business interests.

Until Menendez’s relations with Melgen drew the attention of investigators, the senator’s influence in Washington had been growing.

He had proved his bona fides as a fundraising powerhouse for Senate Democrats and a hero to Hispanic activists. He ascended last month to the coveted chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and emerged as a prominent player in one of the year’s biggest legislative battles when he joined bipartisan talks over a possible landmark law to remake the U.S. immigration system.

Melgen, toasting Menendez at the May 2010 reception at Casa de Campo, praised the senator as “not only the leader of Hispanic Americans in the United States but the leader of Hispanics in the Americas,” according to a local society column reporting on the event.

Melgen has been a prolific campaign donor, giving more than $700,000 to Menendez and other Senate Democrats ahead of last year’s election. He has also provided the senator with free flights on his private jet and hospitality at his Dominican vacation home, according to people familiar with their relationship. Menendez has sought to apply pressure on the Dominican government to enforce a contract with Melgen’s port security company and has interceded with federal health-care officials after they said Melgen had overbilled the federal Medicare program for treatment at his eye clinic.

The story also contains quotes from an interview that Menendez gave The Post on Thursday. Here is what the Post published:

In an interview Thursday in his Senate office, Menendez waved off any concerns about a federal investigation, saying any review would find he “acted appropriately at all times.” Still, he said, collecting campaign dollars can be an uncomfortable practice.

“For me, raising money to fund a campaign is contrary to what I learned growing up in life, which is you work for everything and you ask for nothing,” he said, noting that he has for years supported public financing of campaigns and other changes to let lawmakers focus on their work. “But that’s a reality for anybody who runs for office who isn’t personally wealthy.”

Several people close to Menendez said in recent days the controversy has taken a toll on the senator, though in public he appears confident and remains engaged with his job.

Some Menendez allies have begun to worry about whether his closeness to Melgen could expose him to legal problems or, at a minimum, jeopardize his legacy. Could much of Menendez’s success now be tainted by the very culture of dealmaking, relationship-building and aggressive fundraising that he mastered over so many years?

After presenting a very detailed summary of Menendez’s political career in New Jersey and specifically his ascension to prominence in Hudson County, the story suggests that the recent allegations, ethics inquiries, and grand jury investigations are just an example of Jersey politics going national. In 2006, Menendez was investigated during his Senate reelection campaign by prosecutors who were working for Chris Christie, New Jersey’s U.S. attorney at the time and now the state’s governor:

Now there is another grand jury looking into a Menendez relationship. And friends say Menendez is angered that the Melgen controversy, no matter the outcome of the current federal probe, threatens to reopen all those old wounds. One friend likened the senator’s frustrations to that of the fictional Michael Corleone, who famously complained of his ­organized-crime family in the “Godfather” movies that “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

“How long does he have to be the guy from Hudson County?” asked Menendez’s friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the senator’s feelings.

One of the more telling parts of the story involves how Menendez is seen as a symbol of the growing influence of U.S. Latinos: “…his down-the-line liberal views on civil rights and immigration helped him broaden his reach into non-Cuban Hispanic communities from Texas to California. He forged ties with non-Hispanic colleagues in Congress by counseling them on how to understand the growing immigrant communities in their districts.”

However, as the story notes, Menendez has “frosty relations” with the Obama administration, “left over from his strong support of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 primaries. Last year, wary of the senator’s history, Obama’s team looked past Menendez to land a Hispanic keynote speaker for the Democrats’ national convention, opting for the little-known mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro.”

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The story concludes with Menendez addressing his relationship with Melgen:

In the interview Thursday, Menendez rejected the notion that his relationship with Melgen was problematic. Melgen’s requests often aligned with Menendez’s public policy aims, the senator said. Menendez pointed to his efforts on behalf of Melgen’s port security deal in the Dominican Republic, which called for operating X-ray scanners to screen cargo. This fit with the goal of fighting drugs and terrorism, the senator said.

Menendez’s friends and supporters often raise policy issues in social settings. And while he said he would usually prefer to be talking about sports or music rather than his work in Washington, the discussions “inevitably head in that direction.”

“It’s like the family member who’s a doctor and everybody starts asking them, ‘Oh, I have this twitch, I have this pain,’ or the family member who’s a stockbroker and [says], ‘Hey, you got any good tips for me?’ ” Menendez said.

While many Menendez supporters and Hispanic media organizations have defended the senator and have suggested that this controversy is all part of a smear campaign being spearheaded by conservative outlets such as The Daily Caller and Breitbart, the Post story is perhaps the most comprehensive story we have read so far about Menendez and Melgen. The Senate and grand jury investigations are still ongoing, but right now, Menendez is losing the public relations battle. Today’s Post story did not help.

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