Tuesday, March 26, 2013 3:31 am
Business as usual for Menendez amid investigations
By DONNA CASSATAAssociated Press
The new Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman presides over hearings on North Korea and counterterrorism, travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan and meets privately with foreign ministers and ambassadors.
The two-term New Jersey senator welcomes professors and students from Rutgers University and the state's National Council of Jewish Women.
As a Cuban-American, he works daily into the evening with seven other senators on a plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system. Participants say he hasn't missed a meeting.
Yet he is still enduring potentially career-ending investigations - one by the Senate Ethics Committee, another reportedly by a federal grand jury in Miami - into whether Menendez crossed the line and pushed the business interests of a friend and top donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen.
It's a cloud that hangs over the senator and Democrats, who wait in fear that a more damaging development or series of them might force Menendez to step down and give Gov. Chris Christie a chance to choose a fellow Republican to fill the seat.
Oddly, it was scandal that led to Menendez' appointment to the Senate in January 2006. New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey resigned in August 2004 after admitting to an extramarital affair with a man. Sen. Jon Corzine won the governorship in November 2005, and after he took over for acting Gov. Richard Codey, appointed Menendez as his replacement in the Senate.
For now, Menendez insists he acted appropriately and will be cleared by any review.
In a separate turn of events, police in the Dominican Republic said three women were paid to falsely claim in videotaped interviews last year that they had sex for money with Menendez. That prompted Menendez' office to demand that U.S. authorities investigate what they called a "smear campaign" based on lies. The interviews first surfaced on a conservative website just before Menendez's re-election last November.
In a brief interview last week, Menendez dismissed the notion that the investigations and the external distractions have affected his work.
"I haven't missed a beat," he said defiantly, ticking off the hearings he's overseen, meetings on immigration and work on bipartisan legislation. "Nothing has impeded my ability to have an impact on what I care about."
Menendez, 59, has always been considered a loner in the clubby Senate, but Democrats and Republicans who have worked closely with him on foreign policy and, in recent weeks, on immigration say he has displayed a singular focus amid the investigations.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., shares Menendez's Cuban roots, serves with him on Foreign Relations and joins him in the "Gang of Eight" negotiations on immigration.
Menendez, according to Rubio, hasn't lost a bit of his edge.
"He's actively engaged in the Gang of Eight," Rubio said. "He's actively engaged on the Foreign Relations Committee."
Rubio said he has a good working relationship with Menendez that dates to their time together as members of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and global narcotics affairs.
"He's the same intense and focused Bob Menendez I've known in the two years I've been here," Rubio said. "The Bob Menendez I see today works just as hard, if not harder, than the one I saw the last year. There's very few people in this building that work as hard or as intensely as he does."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has worked closely with Menendez on immigration as well as ensuring an aid package for victims of Superstorm Sandy, assistance vital to New York and New Jersey residents. With New Jersey's other senator, Frank Lautenberg, ailing, Menendez took on an outsized role in working on the aid.
Schumer said Menendez has been critical on immigration, adding that the investigations have not affected his work.
"All of us respect his integrity," Schumer said.
Menendez's Republican counterpart on the committee, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said the investigations have not come up as a subject in conversations.
"I'm not close enough with him. I know him professionally. I don't know him in that way. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to even talk about it," said Corker, who described Menendez as focused despite the investigations.
"I've had no issues in dealing with him," he said.
Congress has its share of lawmakers who have been buffeted by scandal and ethics questions and soldiered on. Some even survived to serve several more terms.
Rep. Charles Rangel, the longtime New York Democrat censured by the House for ethics violations, was re-elected last year. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was easily re-elected in 2010, three years after his telephone number appeared in the records of a Washington-area escort service that authorities said was a front for prostitution.
In 1991, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was one of the Keating Five - five senators faulted for trying to get regulators to ease up on disgraced financier Charles Keating. The Senate Ethics Committee cited McCain's "poor judgment," delivering harsher criticism to the other four senators.
Menendez, for his part, is planning for the Obama administration's budget for the State Department and foreign operations as well as presiding over the hearing in which his predecessor, Secretary of State John Kerry, will testify on the budget.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed to this report.