Report: Menendez emails sought to aid donor's firm

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 file photograph, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, announce with other senators that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

February 11, 2013 10:52:21 AM PST
Emails between Sen. Robert Menendez's office and the Homeland Security Department describe efforts by the New Jersey Democrat in January to thwart any U.S. donations of cargo-screening equipment to the government of the Dominican Republic. Donated equipment could have jeopardized a port security contract benefiting a close Menendez associate and fundraiser.

The emails came six months after Menendez raised concerns about the Dominican government's port security in a Senate hearing with senior officials from the State and Commerce departments. In the hearing and emails, Menendez and his staff did not name the private firm. But a company run by Dr. Salomon Melgen, Menendez's biggest donor, has pushed to secure a lucrative port security contract with the Dominican government.

The emails were disclosed Monday by the New York Times.

Separately, Menendez acknowledged last week that his office had contacted U.S. health agencies in a way that would help Melgen, whose private jet Menendez used for two personal trips to the Dominican Republic. Menendez said he contacted the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to ask about billing practices and policies. The contacts came during a dispute between CMS and Melgen. The FBI recently searched Melgen's offices.

Menendez has also acknowledged that he flew on Melgen's private plane and failed, initially, to properly pay for the trips. He told reporters he reimbursed some $58,500 from his personal funds. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating.

The Times quoted emails from an unnamed staffer in Menendez's office to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Menendez aide asked whether the U.S. planned to donate cargo-screening equipment to the Dominican government and warned that the use of any U.S.-transferred equipment could be hampered by Dominican officials. The Menendez aide said the "government use of the equipment will be less effective than the outside contractor. My boss is concerned that the C.B.P. equipment will be used for this ulterior motive."

Customs officials assured Menendez's office there were no plans to donate screening equipment.

The "outside contractor" currently selected to provide cargo screening in the Dominican Republic is I.C.S.S.I., a Dominican firm that was partially bought in 2011 by Boarder Support Services, a company based in West Palm Beach, Fla. Corporation records held by the Florida Department of State show Melgen as Boarder's owner.

Last July, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Menendez pressed two U.S. officials about problems between the Dominican government and the unnamed port screening contract. Menendez suggested the government's port security was endangered by its reluctance to deal with the unnamed firm.

The ICSSI firm now partially owned by Melgen signed a contract in 2002 to provide screening throughout the country but the government suspended the deal in 2004 before it went into effect, claiming the contract was too expensive and the bidding was not competitive. Melgen's firm has been trying to reinstate the contract, which is tied up in Dominican courts. The Times has reported the contract could be worth as much as $500 million over 20 years.

The events have engulfed Menendez, 59, just as he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succeeding former Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who resigned to become secretary of state.

Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Menendez's for many years. Last year, Melgen's practice gave $700,000 to Majority PAC, a super political action committee set up to fund Democratic candidates for Senate. Aided by Melgen's donation, the super PAC became the largest outside political committee contributing to Menendez's re-election, spending more than $582,000 on the senator's behalf.