It is too early to determine the fate of U. S. Senator Bob Menendez who CNN reported will be indicted on charges related to favors he provided to his largest campaign contributor, Dr. Salomon Melgen. Sen. Menendez has responded, “Let me be very clear – very clear. I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law… I am not going anywhere.” Whether these known favors involve only bending the rules or actually breaking the rules is not yet established. Nonetheless, his actions appear far less ethical than what we should expect.
Unfortunately, this news about a New Jersey U. S. Senator is all too familiar as he would be the fourth in a generation to run afoul of the law. Similarly New Jersey congressmen have created their own problems. Hudson County, the political base of Sen. Menendez, has had its share of politicians breaking badly. Now our governor is under federal investigation with an uncertain future. Recent NJ history has provided plenty of warnings about the dangers of bending and breaking rules – warnings which all too frequently have not been heeded.
Just 32 years ago, as viewers of the movie American Hustle know, Senator Harrison Williams was convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges in the Abscam scandal and went to prison. At that point Sen. Menendez was serving on the Union City Board of Education. Thirteen years ago Sen. Robert Torricelli was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee for accepting gifts ranging from a television to suits and was forced out of his re-election race, resulting in Frank Lautenberg returning to the Senate. During this period Menendez was a congressman. Just two years ago the government sued former Governor Jon Corzine for his role in MF Global’s collapse. By now Menendez had become a powerful U. S. Senator.
In the same Abscam scandal Congressman Frank Thompson (D) was indicted and convicted of accepting a bribe, resulting in the election of Chris Smith (R), now our longest running congressman. Most recently Rob Andrews (D) resigned from congress while under investigation by the House Ethics Committee questioning whether he used funds from his re-election campaign to pay for a trip to Scotland for his family.
Senator Menendez came out of politics in Hudson County where he was sometimes thought of as the political boss. Hudson County itself has had its share of convicted officials. State Senator William Musto was indicted in 1981 for kickbacks and was convicted. Sen. Menendez testified against Musto wearing a bullet-proof vest. Democratic Hudson County Chair Gerald McCann was convicted in 1992 for fraud and tax evasion and sentenced to prison. In 2002 Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski pleaded guilty to taking more than $100,000 in bribes, and in 2005 was sentenced to 41 months in prison, despite cooperating with federal investigators. Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo in 2004 pleaded guilty of extortion and was sentenced to prison. Peter J. Cammarano III, who in 2006 was the director in Senator Menendez’s campaign, went on to become Hoboken Mayor in 2009 where he served for only 30 days before being arrested for accepting bribes and later sentenced to prison.
One might think that with so many N. J. government officials being caught breaking the rules during Senator Menendez’s career, and often in his own backyard by people he knew well, that he would not now be facing an indictment.
How to break this cycle should be the subject of discussion and legislation.