Now United States Sen. Bob Menendez, the child of a carpenter, and former Bergen Democratic power broker Joseph Ferriero, the kid of a factory employee, discover themselves at the center of 2 federal corruption cases that open a window into the murky world of politics and money.
The truths in the cases against Menendez and Ferriero are various, but a common narrative thread weaves through them. Each guy stands accused of unlawfully accepting project contributions, gifts or private company contracts in exchange for assisting good friends or partners, either with favors or business deals.
What is most striking about each case is that neither Menendez nor Ferriero denies the standard facts at the center of the federal charges that might send them to jail. They both state they did absolutely nothingnot did anything wrong and vehemently firmly insist that the presents and other benefits they received were not bribes or other prohibited payments, as federal prosecutors assert.
Menendez says he was assisting a close buddy by doing favors; Ferriero states he entered into private business offers with political contacts so he could makemake money and support his family.
Beyond the sense of guilt or innocence of each man, it’s their typical defense that plainly raises profound concerns about access to power and the lengths to which political figures can go to exert their impact, while likewise benefiting economically.
On the exact same afternoon recently, both men discovered themselves in the Martin Luther King federal courthouse in Newark, separated by just one floor.
In a congested fourth-floor courtroom, Menendez’s attorney proclaimed the senator was blameless of the federal bribery and corruption charges originating from his relationship with a rich Florida eye physician. The senator has actually offered a nuanced and stridently individual description for accepting $1 million in presents from the doctor. Responding to the statement of a 14-count indictment versus him, Menendez said he and the doctor have actually been close friends for years, and he implicated federal prosecutors of not knowing the “difference in between friendship and corruption.”
Thirty minutes later, in the fifth-floor courtroom where Ferriero’s six-week bribery and racketeering trial was relaxing, the previous Democratic Celebration chief announced that he would not take the witness stand to affirm in his own defense. In earlier statements on the case, Ferriero’s legal representative, Michael Baldassare, stated his client was merely “makingmaking money based upon relationships.”
“This had not been best,” Baldassare stated. “That does not imply it was a criminal activity. This is how government works.”
Whatever the result, critics and reformers indicate the Menendez and Ferriero cases as examples of a brand-new and troubling political reality where ordinary individuals without monetary means or political connections can feel cut off from their chosen officials or other leaders who wield power.
In an era when voter turnout has actually dropped dramatically and surveys show substantial varieties of Americans as progressively disillusioned and mistrustful of politics, some see the two cases as an alarm about the risks of cash in politics – a trend that is most likely to increase as recent US Supreme Court judgments have opened the door to significantly bigger and entirely legal amounts of cash that can be spent on political projects.
“With the kinds of amounts of cash that are rolling around in our system, it is not surprising that public officials are doing favors for those who pay money and calling them friends,” said Dale Eisman, a spokesperson for the political-reform group Common Cause.
“Constituent service is a virtue. It’s a desire,” included Dave Levinthal of the Washington-based Center for Public Stability, which keeps an eye on the influence of cash in politics. “Where you enter extremely sticky territory is where you offer constituent services in return for something that could benefit you as a politician.”
This is essentially the problem at the center of the Menendez and Ferriero cases.
“Politics in America has always converged in multiple ways with money,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “But these cases involve analysis of the law and the limitations imposedtroubled it and on people in public life. Those limitations are not constantly clear.”
Both the Menendez and Ferriero cases are framed by charges of bribery. But the proof barely fits the antique picture of cash passed to political figures in unmarked envelopes by those looking for favors or access to power.
At the heart of the Menendez case is the senator’s friendship with Salomon Melgen.
Menendez, who says he befriended the Florida eye physicianoptometrist two decades20 years back and states the two have attended wedding events, funeral services and other household occasions together, is implicated of exceeding his function as a senator and trying to step in personally in Melgen’s disagreement with federal authorities over some $9 million in Medicare payments.
In addition, the federal indictment likewise implicates Menendez of using his position to pressure United States authorities to encourage the Dominican Republic to work with a port security company in which Melgen had actually invested. Finally, the indictment declares that Menendez asked the State Department to supply visas to Melgen’s sweethearts who resided in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine.
In return for such favors, the indictment claims that Melgen provided a range of rewards to Menendez in the form of $1 million in gifts that consisted of various free journeys on the physician’s personal jet and trips in Paris and at a vacation home in the Dominican Republic. Likewise, the indictment declares that Melgen also contributed some $800,000 to a variety of campaign funds regulated by Menendez, sometimes around the time the senator did a favor for him.
The Ferriero case is also focused on allegations of illegal impact peddling. And while Ferriero is not a chosen authorities, federal authorities allege he nevertheless traded on his relationships with various chosen officials to organize profitable agreements for his law firm and consulting company.
In among the supposed schemes, Ferriero is implicated of participatingtaking part in a plan to extort $1.7 million from the developer of the previous Xanadu retail and home entertainment complex in the Meadowlands, now being repurposed by another developer as American Dream Meadowlands. In return, Ferriero presumably promised to assist pave the method for approval of the task.
Ferriero does not deny he got the cashthe cash. He declares he was functioning as a private consultant, not as a political celebration chief.
An executive for the Xanadu developer, James Dausch of the Mills Corp., said he was likewise approached for a project contribution for Menendez quicklyright after the legislator interceded on behalf of the task, helping to protect federal approvals. Dausch said he was asked by either by Menendez or someone speaking on his behalf– Dausch could not keep in mind– to raise $50,000 for Menendez’s project fund.
In Dausch’s grand jury testimony, which was launched in court filings in the Ferriero trial, the retired executive stated he was not shocked to be asked to make a donation after a political leader helped him.
“It was not a big offer,” Dausch informed the grand jury. “You just had the corporation write a check.”
Ferriero is also accused of not informing different municipal authorities that he had a stake in a computerized public-safety-alert company that was being marketed to towns, other government firms, and private firms and institutions. Ferriero stood to make 25 percent of each municipal agreement.
Once again, Ferriero did not reject his participation in the firm. But he stated he was under no legal commitment to disclose his financial connections.
In a 3rd supposed racketeering plan, dating to 2002, federal prosecutors say Ferriero provided Dennis Oury, then the Bergenfield municipal attorney, a secret monetary stake in a grant-writing business if Oury would encourage the Bergenfield District Council to employ the company.
Similarly, Ferriero did not deny the hidden financial relate to himself or with Oury. But he said the arrangement was totally legal and certainly not a bribe.
The Bergenfield allegation was the center of Ferriero’s very first corruption trial where he was convicted on a number of counts. However the verdict was reversed when the US Supreme Court revised its interpretation of the federal honest-services statute that was the basis of the case.
For this present trial of Ferriero, federal district attorneys have presented an abridged version of the supposed Bergenfield plan. And similarly, Ferriero’s defense is comparable– namely, that he was doing nothing incorrect by hiding his interest in the grant-writing company.
In her opening arguments in the Ferriero trial, Assistant United States Attorney Barbara Llanes called Ferriero’s transactions an “abuse of his power and impact.”
“This case has to do with relationships– knowing people,” responded to Baldassare, Ferriero’s lawyer. “What Joe was doing was makingearning money based on relationships. Joe Ferriero has a right to make a living.”
Viewers say 2 questions loom heavily over both cases: Just how much of a friendship or a personal business deal should a public figure reveal? And in the end, what is the distinction in between a bribe, a present, a genuine business deal and a contribution to a political action committee or project fund?
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a Washington-based election reform group, said in an interview that it is now more difficult to specify what a bribe is.
“Among the problems is that the courts have actually weakened the bribery statutes and honest-services statutes,” Wertheimer stated. “They have actually made it more difficult to hold public officials accountable for utilizing their offices for individual gain.”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat who knows both Menendez and Ferriero, said the problem ares more fundamental for public officials.
“Yes, you are allowed to have relationships and, yes, you are allowed to earn a living,” she stated. “But you have to reveal.”