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Columnist: Federal Charges Against Sen. Menendez Are ‘Avoidable Mistake’

Robert Menendez

By Gerald Krovatin
Star-Ledger Guest Columnist

Let’s take a deep breath and put the indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in perspective.

Every few years, the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department in Washington seems to bring a case against a high-profile elected official that turns out to be a waste of time and resources. From the unsuccessful prosecution of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy to the train wreck of a case against former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to the bewildering charges against former Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina), when the dust settles, the prosecutions have ended up posing more of a threat to public confidence in the Justice Department and its judgment than anything else.

This year, the “public integrity” roulette wheel has stopped on Sen. Menendez. And, like many of the cases that have come before it, the prosecution of Sen. Menendez has all the signs of being another foreseeable and avoidable mistake.

In the case just filed, the prosecutors have charged Sen. Menendez with accepting gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. The government contends that, in exchange for these gifts, Sen. Menendez met with administration officials to advance his friend’s interests in a Medicare billing dispute and a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.

But according to news reports and a court opinion already decided during the investigation, the senator and Melgen have also been close personal friends for more than two decades. Their relationship reportedly includes weddings, funerals and other family events that close friends typically share with each other.

This friendship poses a serious legal problem for the government. How can the government prove that any efforts by Sen. Menendez on behalf of his friend were caused by any gifts, as opposed to their long-standing personal friendship? And, if the Justice Department now is charging that soliciting or receiving campaign contributions is the quid pro quo of corruption, it better abolish our current system of raising political money or build a whole lot more jail cells for contributors and candidates.

Gerald Krovatin is a criminal defense attorney and a past president of the Association of the Federal Bar of New Jersey.

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