RIDGEFIELD — Sen. Bob Menendez suggested Friday that he may not pay back anything more than he already has for private jet flights and gifts he received from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, his friend and co-defendant in last year’s federal corruption trial.
A jury failed to convict Menendez and Melgen on bribery charges for nearly $1 million in political contributions and gifts the senator received from Melgen, allegedly in exchange for official action by the Democratic senator. But the Senate Ethics Committee admonished Menendez, demanding, without going into specifics, that he amend his financial disclosure reports to reflect the gifts and pay them back.
“I think the Ethics Committee was unaware that there were a series of payments that were made before they continued their review,” Menendez said at an unrelated press conference in Bergen County. “Remember, [the ethics complaint] was filed in 2012 by Republicans here in New Jersey, and I think they’re unaware. We are making them aware."
Amid media scrutiny in 2013 and after the ethics complaint was filed by a Republican state lawmaker in New Jersey, Menendez reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for two flights on the doctor’s private jet. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also reimbursed Melgen almost $15,000 for a third flight.
But at Menendez’s trial, prosecutors outlined far more than three flights Menendez took on Melgen’s plane. Some of those flights were different legs of single trips, and some had more passengers on board than just Menendez. Prosecutors also detailed gifts to Menendez that included a Paris hotel room worth thousands of dollars and many stays at Melgen’s villa at a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic.
In demanding repayment, the Ethics Committee did not specify how much Menendez owed.
“My attorney is engaged in conversations with them to let them know everything that was paid,” Menendez said.
The senator then waived off a question from POLITICO, asking him to explain the other gifts, saying “that’s all I have to say about that.”
Paying back Melgen for expensive gifts would be a challenge for Menendez, whose income is mainly from his $175,000 Senate salary.
Menendez‘s legal and ethical troubles seem to have taken a toll on his popularity. According to a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released Friday morning, Menendez leads his likely Republican opponent, Bob Hugin, by just 4 percentage points, 28 percent to 24 percent, with 46 percent undecided.
Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, said he wasn’t worried about the poll, noting that two other recent polls, from Quinnipiac University and Monmouth University, showed him leading Hugin by 17 points and 21 points, respectively.
“You all have to judge whether a poll is actually on point or is an outlier. But [the FDU poll] is a total contrast to every other poll, and all of those polls largely had all the information that’s out there already,” Menendez said. “If you’re going to live your life by polls then you’re going to be either taking a vacation because you’re so far ahead that you don’t have to do anything, or you’ll be worried and paralyzed about what you see. I am neither. I am neither taking a vacation nor worrying. I am fighting on behalf of the people of New Jersey every single day.”
There is a major difference in the timing of the polls. The FDU poll was the only one of the three conducted after the Ethics Committee formally admonished the senator.
Menendez said that as voters become aware of Hugin’s leadership at Celgene — a Summit-based pharmaceutical company that has come under fire for sharply raising prices on cancer drugs, putting up obstacles to generic versions of its products and parking money overseas — they will see the “contrast” between the two candidates.
Menendez also highlighted Hugin’s financial support for President Donald Trump, noting he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect him, served as a finance chair for Trump’s New Jersey campaign and a Trump delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention.
“I know he doesn’t like to suggest that he’s a Republican and he won’t answer the question of whether or not Donald Trump is someone he wants campaigning for him, but at the end of the day that’s the challenges we have,” Menendez said. “So when I put on the floor of the Senate a vote — and amendment — to actually restore the state and local property tax [deduction], every single Democrat voted for it. Every single Republican voted against it. We don’t need to send more Republicans to the Senate to be voting with Donald Trump to take a beating on New Jersey.”
Megan Piwowar, communications director for the Hugin campaign, said New Jerseyans are “fed up“ with Menendez.
"If Senator Menendez can look New Jerseyans in the eye and honestly tell them their lives are better after his 25 years in Washington, then he is either clueless or a better liar than we gave him credit for," Piwowar said. “If Bob Menendez fought as hard for average New Jerseyans as he did for his convicted felon 'best friend' from Florida, maybe we wouldn't be dead last in what we get back from Washington.
“Bob Hugin has the momentum in this race because Democrats, Republicans, and Independents in New Jersey are fed up with being poorly represented by someone whose greatest accomplishment is managing to stay one step ahead of the law."