Senator Menendez (D-NJ) deserves to be censured

In light of the Senate Ethics Committee severely admonishing Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) for ethics violations, Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee issued the following statement:

“It is a refreshing change of pace to see a rare show of public action from the Senate Ethics Committee, which often feels more like a black hole where allegations go to die. And it was satisfying to see the committee make strong statements about Sen. Menendez’s violations of both Senate Rules and federal law. However, the disappointing aspect of the Ethics Committee’s actions regarding Sen. Menendez was the decision to ‘severely admonish’ the senator because in this case, the punishment does not fit the unethical behavior. Sen. Menendez should have been censured for his violations of federal law and rules that discredited the Senate.

Just look at the committee’s findings articulated in the four-page letter. The committee faulted Sen. Menendez for:

  1. Using his position to advance Dr. Melgen’s personal business interests.
  2. Violating both Senate rules and federal law as well as the Ethics in Government Act (EIGA) and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA).
  3. Accepting free travel on private planes, which was outlawed by HLOGA.
  4. Creating the appearance of impropriety and reflected poorly upon the Senate.
  5. Violating critical provisions of the Code of Ethics for Government Service, particularly to:

‘Never discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not; and never accept, for himself or herself or for family members, favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of governmental duties.’

Further, he is obligated to repay the fair market value of gifts he received. The Committee also articulated a number of important standards and findings that should guide other senators behavior.

  1. Just because a cause is “worthy” is not sufficient to justify actions of these types by a Senator.
  2. His level of responsiveness to Dr. Melgen went beyond senate norms.
  3. The personal friendship exemption is not a blanket excuse for Senator Menendez’s actions.
  4. Senator Menendez’s “office and its resources and power” are not personal to him.
  5. Made clear that the results of a criminal trial does not supplant the Senate Ethics Committees’ jurisdiction and responsibility.

If the Committee simply said, ‘do not do that again,’ then the admonishment would make sense. However, the Committee’s bill of particular violations makes it clear a stronger punishment was merited.”

A censure has traditionally been used “to impose a punishment when the full body formally disapproves of the conduct or behavior of a Member,” according to the Congressional Research Service. It does not remove a senator from office. But it would have been appropriate for Senator Menendez to have been required to appear on the Senate floor to hear the list of violations and the decided penalty. Only nine senators have been censured by the body since 1789, including Sens. Durenberger (R-MN) and Talmadge (D-GA).

“Further, the unethical behavior and criminal allegations in this case continue to highlight how the Supreme Court has gutted key anti-corruption laws. This outcome lays directly at the feet of the Court’s findings in Sun-Diamond, and  McDonnell v. United States. Those decisions have acted as roadmaps to how donors may continue to purchase access and influence lawmakers in Washington.”

“Congress could revive and pass the Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act, introduced originally by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). It is a common-sense reform that expands the boundaries of corrupt actions. If this bill were law, the likelihood of a guilty finding in the Menendez case would have been much higher.”

Issue One continues to craft and highlight solutions to enforce strong ethical standards on Capitol Hill.