The Unsexy Corruption of Sen. Bob Menendez
by

“If you think the average Dominican guy’s bad, Trujillo was five thousand times worse. Dude had hundreds of spies whose entire job was to scour the provinces for his next piece of a**; if the procurement of a** had been any more central to the Trujillato the regime would have been the world’s first culocracy (and maybe, in fact, it was). In this climate, hoarding your women was tantamount to treason; offenders who didn’t cough up the muchachas could easily find themselves enjoying the invigorating charm of an eight-shark bath.”
— Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Rafael Trujillo still haunts the Dominican Republic a half-century after his assassination ended a three-decade reign in which more than 50,000 people were murdered, “disappeared,” raped, or tortured. To find a crueler tyrant in the Americas, you’d have to venture back to the days of the Maya and the Aztecs. His absolute dominion was proclaimed across the capital city by an electric sign: “Dios y Trujillo,” and the old-timers will never forget what it meant. It’s no coincidence, then, that two of the great works of 21st century literature – Díaz’s book quoted above and La Fiesta del Chivo by Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa – are attempts to reckon with Trujillo’s brutal legacy.

One astounding aspect of politics in the Dominican Republican today is that, thanks to a general amnesty after Trujillo’s death, one of his compatriots, Marino Vinicio “Vincho” Castillo, went on to become a major political force in the country – the founder of a political party and an advisor to several presidents since. His sons are politicians, too. So when Vinicio “Vinchito” Castillo Semán, who is a congressman there, saw his name come up in a huge scandal involving underaged prostitutes, yacht parties, and crooked politicians and their supporters, he rushed to distance himself from a story with ruinous echoes of the past.

“It’s completely false and slanderous, this story that I was at parties and outings with prostitutes, whether underage or legal, with Sen. Robert Menéndez and Dr. Salomón Melgen,” Castillo read in an open letter. Melgen is Castillo’s cousin. “It’s my conviction that this defamation campaign is the result of a conflict that’s come up with certain powerful interests in the Dominican Republic who are completely opposed to having the millions of containers that go in and out of our ports be scanned by a high-tech X-ray system, under a contract that the Dominican government signed during the administration of Hipólito Mejía, which was approved by Congress, in 2002.”

The letter goes on to discuss a container scanning company called ICSSI that Melgen had recently purchased, and to allege that shadowy drug traffickers and corrupt politicians were trying to thwart them.

It turns out, Castillo was spilling the beans on another sort of scheme, according to federal prosecutors. That security plan was a chance for Melgen to turn a $100,000 investment into $500 million in revenue or more, if Menendez, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could prevail upon the State Department to get the Dominican government to honor the contract, which had been in legal limbo for nearly a decade.

In February 2012, Melgen completed his acquisition of ICSSI. In March, a former Menendez staffer named Pedro Pablo Permuy who went to work for the company started making calls to State Department officials. In April, a mystery whistleblower first began shopping around the prostitution allegations, although these wouldn’t come to light until November. So the timeline certainly fits with Castillo’s version.

More important for Mendendez’s criminal culpability is what came next. On May 16, 2012, the senator himself met with an assistant secretary of state to discuss the contract, threatening to hold hearings if it wasn’t resolved, according to his indictment. That same day, Melgen made some $60,000 in contributions to Menendez.

If proven, that threat might well meet the Supreme Court’s standard for an “official act,” which is required for a bribery conviction. In unanimously reversing the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the court ruled that simply “(s)etting up a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an official act.” Instead, the court said, an official act connoted the “formal exercise of government power, such as a lawsuit, hearing, or administrative determination.”

The irony is that, most likely, nobody would have discovered the (apparently) real crime if Castillo hadn’t tried to defend himself from the (apparently) fake one. At the time, Castillo’s explanation got almost no attention in the U.S., where coverage was focused first on whether or not Menendez had cavorted with prostitutes, and later, on trashing the Daily Caller reporters who broke the less-than-sound story as dupes who had been manipulated by mysterious forces for unknown, presumably political, reasons.

Even now, mainstream accounts of the trial in the Philadelphia Inquirer and New Jersey Star-Ledger present it as fact that that the prostitution allegations against Menendez have been “discredited” and “disproven.” Isn’t that how we all remember it? The Washington Post reported that two women who claimed to be among the supposed prostitutes in question had recanted, saying that they had been paid to lie about Menendez and had never actually met him. Were they bought off? Were they actually the same women? Were they honestly confessing to a dirty trick? Were any reporters in on the machinations?

The number of women didn’t match up, and the Daily Caller persisted, but the story had been damaged enough for the U.S. media to ignore. So I was surprised to find a nearly ignored story from August 2015, when federal investigators disclosed that they had uncovered a little black book with Menendez’s name on it, and claimed in court documents to have “corroborating evidence,” but not proof, of the allegations:

Some eyewitnesses described a party attended by defendant Melgen in Casa de Campo — where defendant Melgen has a home and where defendant Menendez often visited — involving prostitutes. Furthermore, defendant Melgen has flown numerous young women from the United States and from other countries on his private jet to the Dominican Republic. Many of these young women receive substantial financial support from defendant Melgen. For example, defendant Melgen flew two young women — whom he met while they were performing at a South Florida ‘Gentlemen’s’ Club — on his private jet to his villa in Casa de Campo the day after paying one young woman $1,000 and the other young woman $2,000. Indeed, one of defendant Melgen’s pilots described ‘young girls’ who ‘look[ed] like escorts’ traveling at various times on defendant Melgen’s private jet. Some young women who received substantial sums of money from defendant Melgen were in the same place as defendant Menendez at the same time. Moreover, when the allegations were first reported, defendant Menendez defended himself with public statements that are easily disprovable. Specifically, he repeated several times that he had only flown on defendant Melgen’s private jet on three occasions. That representation is demonstrably false.

The short of all this is that there’s no proof positive that Menendez was visiting prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. It’s also quite likely somebody tried to set him up. That doesn’t mean he’s innocent, but it’s also somewhat beside the point.

The government has the goods here. It’s got plenty of quid flowing from Melgen to Menendez, in both campaign donations and gifts that violated Senate ethics rules. It’s got quo in the form of official acts. That State Department official flew down to the Dominican to try to get Melgen and Permuy that scanning contract, which would have paid out at up to $90 a container for 20 years. (In fairness, the present arrangement could be even worse; customs offices throughout Latin America are houses of bribery and corruption.) And we haven’t even talked about the sleaziness of the Medicare fraud for which Melgen was recently convicted.

Menendez’s lawyers say there was a valid policy reason that his staffers were trying to bully Medicare officials to settle an $8.9 million dispute in Melgen’s behalf, but it’s a bunk claim. At his ophthalmology practice in Florida, Melgen would bill Medicare for four vials costing $2,000 each that he supposedly used to inject into four separate eyeballs, when really, he was taking all the medication from a single vial despite contamination risks. That’s how he billed Medicare for more than any other doctor in the country. The lawyers say the Menendez staffers were arguing that Melgen’s way leads to cost-cutting, but of course the price of medication isn’t determined by the actual cost to produce a unit, which is almost nil.

This should be the focus of the case. But the papers now say that the trial has been “sanitized” of sex talk. U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls, who is presiding over the case, has declared that there is “no way on God’s green earth” he would allow “right-wing smears” in his courtroom.

For a second, I can see it that way. Imagine sitting in that jury box, hearing about how Melgen spent 650,000 American Express points on a three-night stay for Menendez in a luxury Paris hotel with a “limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower,” but not getting to hear the prosecution talk about a lady friend of his. Menendez’s only expense there was a 12 euro bill at the hotel restaurant, which he paid in cash. I’d figure, maybe my dude just really likes fancy baths. Maybe he really does fly to an island resort to drink juice and read books.

The danger, in a trial that’s expected to stretch into late November, is that the jury will lose the plot. Remember, they’re not even instructed on the elements they’re supposed to be listening for until it’s all over. They’re apt to drift off into boredom, wondering why they’re wasting months of their lives over some fancy bathrooms.

That would be the final irony: a case that started with a sex scandal meant to obscure a crooked business deal falls apart because real corruption is so much more boring than sex.

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