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Admonished by Senate, Embattled Menendez Fights For Survival

After Beating Criminal Charges, Senator's Re-Election Campaign Prevailed in Primary
Cahill, Menendez, and Booker
Mayor James Cahill, Senator Bob Menendez and Senator Cory Booker speaking at the Mt. Zion AME Church in New Brunswick Senator Bob Menendez

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—One of New Jersey's two US Senators, Bob Menendez, was admonished by his colleagues for ethics violations on April 26, but then went on to win his party's primary election less than six weeks later.

Menendez prevailed in the June 5 Democratic Party contest, but many observers were surprised that his sole opponent received such a large portion of the vote.

While most of the party's establishment, including fellow Senator Cory Booker and NJ Governor Phil Murphy, immediately and vocally rallied behind Menendez, only about 60% of the party's voters chose the embattled Menendez over primary challenger Lisa McCormick.

He now faces Republican Bob Hugin, and six other candidates in the November election, as he hopes to secure a third six-year term in the Senate.

After being indicted and put on trial in a highly-publicized criminal proceeding last year, Menendez escaped without a conviction after jurors could not agree whether he was guilty of federal crimes.

Then, just as it seemed prosecutors with the US Attorney's Office were going to subject him to a second trial, a judge dismissed some of the charges and the prosecutors backed off.

But, after conducting their own investigation, the Senate's Ethics Committee unanimously ruled that Menendez had repeatedly violated ethics rules by accepting gifts from a doctor whose interests he helped to advance in his official capacity.

That doctor, Salomen Melgen, is now in prison after being found guilty of one of the most severe Medicare fraud schemes in history.  Menendez was prosecuted for using his position to inappropriately help Melgen both personally and professionally.

"The Committee has found that over a six-year period you knowingly and repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen without obtaining required Committee approval, and that you failed to publicly disclose certain gifts as required by Senate Rule and federal law," the Ethics Committee wrote to Menendez.

Among the "gifts" were a number of free trips to Melgen's villa, and the favors he did for Melgen included helping his girlfriend obtain a tourist visa and pressuring federal officials to intervene on Melgen's behalf regarding a contract dispute between one of his companies and the Dominican Republic.

"Additionally, while accepting these gifts, you used your position as a Member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen's personal and business interests," the letter continues, concluding that Menendez "violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct."

The committee directed Menendez to repay the "fair market value" of the "impermissible gifts" he received from the wealthy doctor.

The Senator had already re-paid Melgen $58,500 for some of the gifts back in 2013 when the controversy first surfaced, but it's unclear if he's done made additional payments to satisfy the committee's direction.

Local officials here in New Brunswick seemed unphased by the Senator's ethical troubles, at least during the leadup to the June primary election.

"The Senate apparently reviewed what they needed to review, and they made a determination" said seven-term Mayor James Cahill on April 27.  "I don't have the details of what the Senator did or did not do, but there's a process in place and the process was followed."

Calling Menendez a "passionate and dedicated servant to the State of New Jersey," Cahill said the state's senior Senator "accomplished a lot of great things."

New Brunswick's City Council members had little to say about the admonishment when New Brunswick Today asked if they were still supporting him.

"I haven't said whether I am [supporting Menendez for re-election] or not," said City Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar at the May 2 Council meeting.

Cahill and Escobar are running for re-election, along with Councilman Kevin Egan, who admitted to an ethics violation of his own following a complaint filed by this reporter.

Editor's Note: The author of this article is a current candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in the November 6 election.  The interview with incumbent Mayor James Cahill was conducted prior to the campaign.