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Bob Menendez Scandal: How You Can Uncover Shady Campaign Donations

By now, almost everyone knows the story of rogue Senator Bob Menendez, corrupt legislator by day and aficionado of international prostitutes by night. Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, has struggled to answer questions about his private-jet trips to the Dominican Republican and his alleged dalliances with underage call girls ever since The Daily Caller first reported on this story in late October.

But most people don’t know Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who this time last month was little known outside of his examination room. Yet Melgen is just as critical to this story of international corruption as Menendez is–and unlike the Senator, his involvement in the case can be easily tracked by anyone with a computer.

Just in case you’ve tuned out the noise surrounding the political scandal du jour, let’s bring everyone up to speed. Menendez has taken several trips to the Dominican Republic on Melgen’s private plane, and has stayed at the doctor’s home while allegedly soliciting sex from young teenage girls and refusing to pay them the agreed-upon amounts for their services. That’s right–a public servant making $174,000 per year can’t afford to pay his impoverished underage prostitutes.

If you can look past the disturbing sexual angle of the story, Menendez violated the Senate’s ethical code–and federal law–for each free Dominican trip he received that went unreported and unreimbursed. Menendez recently paid Melgen out of his own pocket for two trips taken several years ago, and did not report any of the others as campaign gifts (which is understandable–why would he admit that he was traveling to visit prostitutes?)

More recently, the FBI raided Melgen’s office in Florida, investigating a Medicare fraud case and possibly uncovering information that would shine further light on his and Menendez’s suspicious relationship. Although most of the media has ignored this case, a handful of investigative journalists began to take a closer look at Melgen after the FBI raid, and discovered that he had ties to several prominent Democrats throughout the country, including former President Bill Clinton.

But these journalists didn’t need formal training or sophisticated software to dig into Melgen’s shady past. All they needed was an Internet connection.

Being a Campaign Finance Watchdog: Using Free Tools to Track Big Money

All candidates and parties, as well as most outside groups (like PACs), are required to report all donations they receive, no matter how large or small. This information is public record, and available to any interested citizen free of charge. The federal government lists all campaign finance information at FEC.gov, a useful but somewhat tricky site to navigate.

That’s where OpenSecrets.org comes in. This free tool is a must-bookmark page for anyone interested in learning more about where all the money in politics comes from. From the home page, you can quickly search for any donor, corporation, politician, or outside group in the country, and instantly gain access to that person or group’s paper trail. If you’ve ever given to a candidate for President or Congress, try entering your own name–it will turn up, along with your address, business, the candidates you’ve given to, and the amount you gave.

Using OpenSecrets, we can look at Salomon Melgen’s donation history. Since 1993, Melgen has donated over $200,000 to Democrats and Democratic committees (and $2,650 to Republicans, included Mark Foley, the disgraced former Congressmen accused of inappropriate relationships with underage boys). Many of the Democrats on Melgen’s list are well-known: he’s given $1,000 to Al Gore, $2,300 to Hillary Clinton, and almost $5,000 to Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

But one name appears over and over again on Melgen’s list: Bob Menendez, who has collected $14,600 from the doctor over the course of his career. Considering that individuals may only donate $2,600 to a candidate for each eleection he or she runs in, Melgen’s support of Menendez can be described as long and generous.

That’s not all: a quick search for Melgen’s donation to committees reveals he kicked in $30,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee–just months after Menendez became its chairman. Melgen also gave to Bill Clinton in 1996, and to failed Florida Senate candidate Hugh Rodham, brother of Hillary, in 1994.

Searching for Melgen as an individual donor turns up some intriguing results, but a watchdog’s work would be incomplete without also searching for donations he made through his business. As it turns out, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants (Melgen’s medical practice which was raided by the FBI) gave $700,000 to a Democratic PAC in 2012–a PAC that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Menendez’s re-election campaign.

Finally, it’s important to search at the state level as well, since OpenSecrets only tracks spending on federal races (President and Congress). Not all states have a site as citizen-friendly as OpenSecrets, but the Virginia Public Access Project is among the best and easiest to use. A quick search on this site reveals that Melgen’s business gave $10,000 to Terry McAuliffe, who ran for governor as a Democrat in 2009.

McAuliffe is making another bid for governor this year. He’s yet to receive a contribution from Melgen–and after this ordeal, he probably doesn’t want one–but if he does, it will be listed in plain sight for all those with the motivation to find it.

The Menendez-Melgen scandal has been sensationalized by the presence of prostitutes, but the real story here is dirty money, and a desperate politician looking for free gifts from a man famous in Democratic circles for his generosity. Although Menendez’s corruption and Melgen’s wide influence over the Democratic Party are troubling, this story offers more encouragement than most political scandals because the facts of the case are laid out in public, for any watchdog willing to shine a ray of light on them.

 

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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