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Sopranos Lite? Casting Menendez in a Culture of Corruption

Republican Kean and NRSC stir doubts, real and invented, about the incumbent

October 31, 2006

Modified: October 31, 2006

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Summary

Two of the most recent ads being aired in New Jersey by Republican Tom Kean Jr.  and the NRSC stick to the recipe the Republicans have been using all season against Sen. Robert Menendez: Show the Democratic incumbent as sleazy, corrupt and possibly a criminal. These are among the hardest-hitting campaign ads we’ve seen this election cycle.

But they’re a mixed bag when it comes to accuracy. The evidence available simply doesn't support the conclusion that Menendez “is under federal criminal investigation,” as one ad claims. Yes, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed records of a lease agreement between him and a nonprofit agency that is his tenant. But it’s not publicly known who the target of the investigation is.

Some of Kean’s other claims, such as that Menendez invited a convicted cocaine trafficker to his swearing-in, are correct.

Analysis

The drumbeat of these ads and others like them has helped Kean pull almost even with Menendez in the Senate race, despite the historic blue-ness of New Jersey ’s voting pattern.

Break the Law?

The first  claim in Kean’s “Law” ad, setting a theme, is that Menendez “believes sometimes you just have to break the law.” The root of the accusation hearkens back 19 years, to when Menendez was mayor of Union City, NJ,   and attended a fundraising dinner to pay lawyers for Cuban-American activist Eduardo Arocena. The founder of a violent anti-Castro group known as Omega 7, which was then headquartered in the Union City area, Arocena was convicted in 1984 on murder, attempted murder, weapons, explosives and other charges.  Menendez’ donation didn't cause much of a flap; his Republican opponent that year said he'd contribute, too, if he were asked. 

  Kean Jr. "Law"

Announcer: Bob Menendez believes sometimes you just have to break the law.
(On screen: black and white footage of Menendez projected on a wall, viewed from an angle)
Announcer: Is that why he brought a convicted cocaine trafficker with him to the Senate floor for his swearing-in?
(On screen: Continuing footage of Menendez)
Announcer: Or why he used his office to do favors for imprisoned mobsters?
(On screen: Different footage of Menendez, text"Menendez assisted members of crime family")
Announcer: Or why he wants to give your Social Security money to illegal aliens?
(On screen: Apparent aliens at border. Text "Menendez: Social Security Money for Illegal Aliens")
Announcer: Or why he's under federal criminal investigation?
(On screen: Menendez in front of Capitol, large text "Federal Criminal Investigation" superimposed on him)
Announcer: Well, Menendez believes sometimes you just have to break the law.
Announcer: New Jersey deserves better.
Kean: I'm Tom Kean Jr. and I approve this message.
(PFB: Tom Kean for U.S. Senate)
What caused a stir was a Menendez quote in the Hudson Dispatch of Oct. 7, 1987 , in reference to Arocena. “I endorse the fact that there are times when what one looks at as a law at a given time has to be broken,” Menendez said in a telephone interview, according to the Dispatch. The newspaper further quoted Menendez as saying that while he must uphold the law, he also was obligated “to listen to the people, if it is their belief collectively that this is a good man.”

The day the newspaper story came out, Menendez issued a statement denying that he advocated breaking the law. “I vehemently deny any statement attributed or implied to me which would indicate that I am in favor of violence or of breaking the law,” his statement said, as reported in the next day’s Hudson Dispatch . He called the first story “a great mischaracterization of my position.”

The Dispatch reported Menendez' denial, but never retracted the original story. The newspaper didn't mention whether the original conversation was recorded, so that's as far as we can go to sort this out.

Cocaine Trafficker Buddy?

The alleged lawbreaking theme continues with the second claim in the ad, that one of the guests at Menendez' Senate swearing-in last January was “a convicted cocaine trafficker.” The reference is to Manny Diaz, an old friend and former law partner of Menendez. In 1997, Diaz was indicted with two other men on charges of conspiring in a plot to sell 40 kilograms of cocaine from Colombia . Diaz pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. He called himself “a supporter” but “not a close friend”  of Menendez and added that he and the senator “don’t socialize.” And yes, he was at the ceremony, according to newspaper accounts, Menendez' office and Diaz.

Favors for Locked-Up Mobsters?

The third reason not to vote for Menendez, the ad tells us, is that he "used his office to do favors for imprisoned mobsters.”  Menendez states that he did no more than he's inclined to do for other imprisoned New Jerseyans. According to state newspapers, in 1998 Menendez wrote to federal prison officials asking whether Nicholas Parlavecchio, convicted in 1992 on racketeering and cocaine charges, could be moved to “a facility closer to his family.” A month later, Parlavecchio’s son Antonio, imprisoned for similar crimes, was allowed to transfer to the prison where his father hoped to go; the elder Parlavecchio made it there the following year. Menendez’ spokesman said the senator had no relationship with the family. However, he said, if the senator gets requests concerning where a sentence is to be served, rather than its length, “we are inclined to accommodate the family’s wishes.”

Social Security for Illegals?

As we have explained recently, nobody wants to "give your Social Security money to illegal aliens. " This fourth allegation against Menendez is false.

"Under Federal Criminal Investigation"?

In September, about two weeks after a New Jersey newspaper did a story on Menendez’ lease of a building he owns to a nonprofit agency, a federal grand jury in New Jersey subpoenaed the agency for records relating to the lease agreement, according to media accounts. 

This single fact forms the basis of what’s become the mantra of Kean and his GOP allies, that Menendez is “under federal criminal investigation.” It’s the fifth charge in this ad. In a recent Kean radio spot the announcer repeats the phrase four times. In a debate on Oct. 7, Kean worked it into his very first response: “I mean, I’ve got an opponent who is under federal criminal investigation.” Menendez has denied it.

In fact, Kean’s statement may be true, but Kean can't prove it based on what is publicly known.

Menendez and his family used to live in the three-story brick house in question, but in 1983 he began renting it for commercial use. He leased it to the North Hudson Community Action Corp. from 1994 until he sold the house in 2003. The rent was $3,100/month at first, then $3,400/month, and over the length of the lease Menendez took in more than $300,000.

According to Menendez, just before he signed this lease in 1994 he cleared it by phone with a lawyer on the staff of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The lawyer, who no longer works there, has recently come forward to say that she doesn’t remember the conversation, but it probably happened – and that if she were advising him now she'd tell him, as she apparently did then, that there was nothing improper about the lease arrangement.  All we know about a federal investigation is that there does seem to be one, because a subpoena was issued. But there’s no way to be certain of what the grand jury and prosecutors are actually going after. We don’t know who or what the subject of this probe is, and federal rules prevent investigators from speaking to outsiders about it. Menendez has said that none of his personal or bank records have been subpoenaed.

It's worth mentioning, since the subpoena was issued in the height of the campaign season, that the U.S. Attorney who is running this investigation, Christopher Christie, contributed to George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and has also contributed to Tom Kean Jr.

Tale of the Tape

Most of the National Republican Senatorial Committee ad called “Tape” consists of an actual audio recording. "Listen carefully to Bob Menendez' top lieutenant pressuring a doctor in a Menendez kickback scheme,"  the announcer says. The tape rolls, with a man's voice saying he's only involved because "Menendez asked me to do it." He also says that the person to whom he's speaking would gain "protection" if he plays along. Those two phrases are played and replayed in the ad, to reinforce the impression that Menendez is up to his eyeballs in questionable schemes.

The voice, according to newspaper accounts, is that of Donald Scarinci, a powerful North Jersey attorney, speaking to psychiatrist Oscar Sandoval. Scarinci is apparently trying to get Sandoval to hire a certain doctor in connection with government contracts Sandoval has, saying Menendez wanted him to do so.

 NRSC "Tape"

Announcer: Listen carefully to Bob Menendez' top lieutenant pressuring a doctor in a Menendez kickback scheme.
Tape: The only reason I stuck my nose in this Ruiz thing is because Menendez asked me to do it.
Repeat tape: Menendez asked me to do it.
Tape: There's got to be a condition to it.
Repeat tape: Condition to it.
Announcer: It makes sense for you because it gives you protection.
Repeat tape: Protection.
Repeat tape: Menendez asked me to do it.
Announcer: Kickback schemes. Federal criminal probes. That's what you get with Bob Menendez.
Kean: I'm Tom Kean Jr. and I approve this message.
(PFB: National Republican Senatorial Committee)

The conversation wound up on tape because Sandoval was working as an FBI informant. In late September of this year, after the Philadelphia Inquirer obtained a copy of the recording and shared a transcript with the Menendez campaign, a Menendez spokesman announced that Scarinci would have nothing further to do with the senator's campaign. "Scarinci was using Menendez' name without his authorization or his knowledge," the spokesman said. Scarinci, in a statement, said that "none of my dealings with Dr. Sandoval were either directed or requested by Bob Menendez."No evidence has surfaced to the contrary.

Whether Scarinci is Menendez' "top lieutenant," as we're told by the announcer, is open to debate, though he certainly is a longtime political ally and friend. More problematic is the phrase "Menendez kickback scheme." There's no suggestion, in the reports we've seen on the tape's contents, of anyone getting a kickback. That term is used again after the tape plays:  "Kickback schemes. Federal criminal probes. That's what you get with Bob Menendez."

We were thinking more along the lines of "Stretching the truth. Unsupported allegations. That's what you get with these attack ads."

-by Viveca Novak

Sources

Volpe, Gregory J. "Menendez eased transfer for racketeer," Asbury Park Press. 15 Oct. 2006.

Jackson, Herb. "Ex-ethics official sees no conflict in lease deal; says Menendez didn't break House rules," The Record. 20 Sept. 2006.

Mondics, Chris. "Tape adds to Menendez ethics debate; an ally's recorded request was more a threat, an informant said," The Philadelphia Inquirer. 28 Sept. 2006.

Delli Santi, Angela. “Corzine, Lautenberg rally behind Menendez in Senate race,” Associated Press Newswires. 1 October 2006.

Howlett, Deborah. “Menendez buddy’s past under a magnifying glass,” The Star-Ledger. 27 July 2006.

Gohlke, Josh. “Menendez associate: Loyal ally or liability?” The Record. 26 July 2006.

Whelan, Jeff and Josh Margolin. “Feds probe Menendez rental deal,” The Star-Ledger. 8 Sept. 2006.

Rivera, Ray. “A Show of Hostility for Menendez and Kean,” The New York Times. 8 October 2006.

Horowitz, Jason. “”Prosecutor Makes a Meal of NJ Senate Race,” New York Observer. 16 October 2006.