Menendez indicted, but why?

Sen. Robert Menendez was indicted today (April 1) on federal corruption charges. He is accused of using the influence of his office to advance the business interests of a longtime friend and political supporter in exchange for luxury gifts, lavish vacations, and more than $750,000 in campaign donations. The indictment is here.

The indictment comes on the heels of Menendez’s strong opposition to President Obama’s Iran policy. It also comes the same day that the government declined to indict Lois Lerner.

I take no position on whether Menendez deserves to be indicted; it may be that he does. For what it’s worth, though, I’d be surprised if Menendez is the only Senator who has engaged in the same kind of behavior the government accuses him of.

I’m also not prepared to say that Menendez was targeted by the Justice Department because of his positions on foreign policy. As I understand it, this case has been in the works for a long time. Perhaps it was developed with an eye towards keeping Menendez, who has been the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, in line. But I think we need more facts before we should level such an accusation.

But ask yourself this: If a case comparable to this one, but against an Obama loyalist in the Senate, had been presented to Eric Holder, would he have signed off on an indictment? Would a case against an Obama loyalist even have percolated up to Holder? I don’t think so.

Last month, Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post wrote that the case against Menendez may be tough for the government to win. Menendez is a close and long-time personal friend of the man who is accused, in essence, of bribing him. This, says DeBonis, makes it potentially difficult to prove that Menendez acted on his friend’s behalf for money.

Menendez is alleged to have advocated for his friend’s interests in a Medicare billing dispute and on a matter involving the award of a contract to provide screening equipment for Dominican ports. But can the government prove that Menendez engaged in such advocacy in exchange for financial consideration, as opposed to some other reason such as their friendship? (And again, such advocacy on behalf of friends and contributors surely goes on all the time, which brings us back to the question of why the Justice Department singled out Menendez).

I’m not convinced that proving the case against Menendez will be as difficult as DeBonis suggests. But if DeBonis is right, it casts further doubt on whether the Obama administration is prosecuting Menendez in good faith. The government typically does not bring high-profile criminal cases it will have serious trouble winning.

But win or lose, the Menendez indicment sends a strong message to Senators and members of the House. The message is: look what can happen when you cross me.

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