Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and his wealthy donor Salomon Melgen engaged in "a corrupt pact spanning seven years," federal prosecutors allege. It was a "bribery scheme," in which Menendez got campaign contributions, chartered flights, luxury accommodations, and more. In return, the senator allegedly took "official action advancing the South Florida eye doctor's personal whims and business interests."
Menendez denies all these accusations, and in his defense he will argue that the hundreds of thousands in contributions and the millions worth of gifts he received, combined with the millions in taxpayer cash he tried to get for Melgen, were just ordinary politics. A powerful man using his power to steer government policy to the benefit of a friend and patron? That's just how things work in this town.
Menendez has a point. As the federal government has inserted itself deeper and deeper into more and more industries, big businessmen increasingly live or die by the favor of Uncle Sam. The result is a booming lobbying industry tied directly to a multilayered web of fundraising. One fruit of this standard-order corruption is the small army of former congressmen and senators who are now millionaire lobbyists living in Chevy Chase Maryland or McLean Virginia.
It's also a breeding ground for quid-pro-quo deals.
After federal officials determined in 2009 Melgen, an ophthalmologist, had overbilled Medicare by $9 million, Melgen asked Menendez to fix the problem, prosecutors say. Menendez jumped to Melgen's aid, emails show, in a way you can't imagine he would for anyone but a dear donor and patron. Menendez called on his staff to help "asap," and they did, lobbying Medicare to charge its billing rules. Menendez personally called the Medicare director. Then Menendez went straight Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and also set up a meeting between Melgen and Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health committee.
It goes on. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid got roped in, and there was a personal meeting between Menendez and Sebelius. In this time period, Melgen was donating and raising money for Menendez, Reid, and all Senate Democrats. In all, Melgen gave more than $750,000 to Menendez's campaigns and his legal defense fund.
Does this sound corrupt, and like a quid pro quo? Of course, it does.
And there was plenty more. Melgen was invested in diesel-to-natural-gas companies, and Menendez introduced legislation (repeatedly) to subsidize diesel-to-natural-gas conversions. Menendez helped Melgen get visas to bring his foreign girlfriends to the United States, prosecutors allege. Menendez also lobbied the federal government to urge the Dominican Republic to settle a contract dispute in Melgen's favor, according to a prosecutors' brief, at the same Menendez was asking Melgen for large campaign contributions.
In the bright light of day, this all seems corrupt. But actions should always be considered in context. The context for the mutually beneficial Melgen-Menendez scheme is a national capital where corporatism and cronyism are the norm.
Just look at almost any point of Harry Reid's campaign — his land deals with lobbyist/donor Harvey Whittemore, or his own peculiar personal enrichment, for instance. Then there was Obamacare. In April 2009, drug lobbyists and top Democrats met to help shape Obamacare at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. This was a few weeks before the July White House meeting where drug lobbyists got Democrats to insert friendly provisions and kill unfriendly provisions, followed by a two-week stretch in which drug company PACs gave $23,000 to Reid. The industry later ran ads supporting him for his work crafting and passing the bill.
Reid wrote legislation that enriched the drug companies, at the request of the drug companies. The drug companies kept their promise by funding Reid's reelection. This is different from Menendez's arrangement ... how?
This is, in fact, the norm in both parties. Revolving-door lobbyists shell out the big bucks, get a seat at the table, and so get their policy preferences in law.
So the task before the prosecutors is not to show that the Melgen-Menendez arrangement was corrupt. Of course, it was. Prosecutors will likely need to argue that this corruption is different in kind from the standard corruption that is Washington.
Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's commentary editor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.