Bob Menendez: a look back

Back in 2006, I wrote an article in Commonweal that criticized some over-the-top attacks Republicans made on Bob Menendez during his campaign for U.S. Senate in New Jersey.

As a young man, Menendez had aided  prosecutors by testifying before a federal grand jury and then at the corruption trial of his mentor, Bill Musto, the mayor of Union City, N.J. and New Jersey’s senior state legislator. The GOP claimed that for Menendez to have testified, he must have been in cahoots with the mayor, who was convicted in 1982 of racketeering for a scheme to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs from a construction company that was not-so-secretly controlled by organized crime.

The GOP accusation against Menendez was false, as I knew from having covered the investigation from its genesis while a cub reporter at the local paper, The Hudson Dispatch.

Menendez was among a group of young, up-and-coming politicos who looked up to Musto as a mentor. Musto was  an old-school boss who helped the disadvantaged—the people who lined up outside his office everyday—in very concrete ways (in return for their loyalty).

Musto betrayed  Menendez. He put his 24-year-old protégé in charge of the local school board’s finances, and then Musto and some of his long-time supporters proceeded to milk the school system by taking payoffs from a contractor hired to build additions on local high schools. The contractor found the money for bribes by putting in for phony cost overruns on the school job—some three-quarters of a million dollars worth.

The true nature of Musto’s dealings with the contractor took some time to emerge, but well before that happened, Menendez suspected something was wrong and began to cooperate with FBI agents who came calling. His conduct was exemplary, according to federal prosecutors at that time. It was emotionally difficult for him to turn on his mentor, and dangerous to testify against a construction company that was controlled by organized crime.

When I reported on Menendez in 2006, I focused only on the young man, not the U.S. senator. But I wrote in Commonweal that “Some of his dealings as a public official have since been questioned--and voters should consider if he has lived up to his youthful ideals.”

It’s hard to predict what will come of the charges announced against Menendez on Wednesday. The Justice Department accused him  of accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions in exchange for doing various favors for a Florida eye doctor, including help with Medicare billing disputes and securing visas.  I’m not sure if prosecutors will be able to persuade the jury that Menendez’s actions are significantly worse than other common unethical behavior on Capitol Hill. 

But even in the light most favorable to Menendez—accepting his assertion that the gifts he took are legal because he and the eye doctor are close friends—his actions are unacceptable, especially for someone who started out his career in public life by standing up to corruption. It’s a great disappointment.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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