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Senator Menendez Meets with President Lobo to Discuss U.S. Funding for Honduras

By Arthur Phillips | CEPR Americas Blog | May 2, 2013

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) met with Honduran president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo on Wednesday as part of a tour through Central America. According to press reports, Menendez characterized the trip, during which the Senator also visited El Salvador and Guatemala, as an opportunity to evaluate regional counter-narcotics and security initiatives that the U.S. is funding at increasing levels through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). A Spanish-language press report on the trip quotes Menendez as having said that he intends to “explore the specific points of this funding proposal,” and that he wants to “see what works and what does not.”

The State Department’s 2014 budget proposal, submitted on April 10, requests $161.5 million in funding for CARSI, a $26 million increase from the previous year. The proposal requests $4.5 million in foreign military financing specifically for Honduras, an increase of 450% over the FY2012 total. And Just the Facts, a joint project of nonpartisan groups focused on U.S.-Latin American relations, notes that current budget proposals have total U.S. military and police funding for Honduras in FY2014 at $8.7 million, a 63% increase over 2013 projections. Furthermore, according to a Congressional Research Service report, as of last July the State Department and USAID had planned to allocate a combined $72 million to Honduras in FY2012.

These rising levels of funding for the police and military run counter to the concerns of many lawmakers in Washington around the lack of accountability for U.S. involvement in Honduran security and anti-narcotics operations. It also highlights the seriousness of recent reports that the State Department has been supporting units under the command of National Police Chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who allegedly ran death-squads a decade ago, and, more broadly, that the police have been accused of continuing to commit death-squad murders today. In December the National Autonomous University, citing the police’s own reports, announced that police had killed 149 civilians in the previous two years.

It is unclear whether or not Menendez raised these concerns while meeting with President Lobo. But Fox News Latino reports that Menendez praised the head of state for helping stabilize the country after the June 2009 coup. Readers who have followed CEPR’s work will remember that Lobo came to power through elections held by the coup regime under a cloud of political repression, which was why the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center refused to send election observers. Since then, members of the opposition party and the LGBT community, land rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been murdered with nearly absolute impunity.

In Guatemala, Menendez met with President Otto Pérez Molina and Minister of Governance Mauricio López Bonilla. López Bonilla was part of the six-officer junta that ruled with Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982-3, while Pérez Molina was a commanding officer in the region where the government carried out a campaign of murder, rape and torture. Ríos Montt now faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in a Guatemalan court.

Menendez, meanwhile, is still on the hot seat for having accepted free trips to the Dominican Republic from a major financial backer, Dr. Salomon Melgen. (Menendez has since reimbursed Melgen.) Earlier this year, it was revealed that the senator discouraged U.S. officials from donating port security equipment to the Dominican Republic out of concern that doing so could undermine Melgen’s company’s lucrative contract, though Menendez did not mention the doctor or his company by name. According to federal investigators, Menendez also advocated on Melgen’s behalf to a senior Medicare official regarding the doctor’s reported $8.9 million debt, which he incurred by overbilling the government.

While the Senate Ethics Committee continues to investigate Menendez’s actions, the Washington Post reported on March 14 that a federal grand jury in Miami is also looking into Menendez’s role in advocating for his donor’s financial interests. In response to this news, the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s editorial board said the grand jury investigation undermines “the senator’s credibility and his effectiveness as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations” and urged him to step down from that post.

May 4, 2013 Posted by | Corruption, Militarism, Timeless or most popular, War Crimes | , , , , , , | Comments Off on Senator Menendez Meets with President Lobo to Discuss U.S. Funding for Honduras

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Implicated in Corruption Investigation

By Arthur Phillips | CEPR Americas Blog | February 7, 2013

A front-page article in the print edition of today’s Washington Post details how New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez twice approached federal health-care officials about Dr. Solomon Melgen’s outstanding $8.9 million debt to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which the doctor claims was the result of being over billed. Melgen, personally and through his ophthalmology company, has made major contributions to Menendez’s political campaigns.

This is the latest news to follow reports that on Wednesday, January 30, the FBI raided Melgen’s offices, soon after which the senator’s office described the doctor as “a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years.” Two days later, following John Kerry’s resignation from his seat as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become Secretary of State, Menendez took over the position, one of the most powerful and prestigious in Congress.

Menendez, who is Cuban American, has taken a hard line against easing travel restrictions to Cuba and has been described as “fiercely pro-embargo.” The New Jersey Democrat has also worked closely with lawmakers across the aisle on policy towards Iran, including his co-authorship of sanctions legislation with Republican Senator Mark Kirk last year.

Early reports of the FBI’s search focused on allegations that in 2010 Senator Menendez accepted free flights to the Dominican Republic from Dr. Solomon Melgen and had sex with prostitutes during these trips, a claim he has vehemently denied. It was also noted that Menendez is not married, and that prostitution is legal in the Caribbean nation. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the senator, who in January of this year wrote a $58,000 personal check to reimburse Melgen for two trips.

But the FBI’s raid appeared to be linked to two parallel investigations of Melgen, one regarding Medicare fraud, the other political corruption. Both investigations may involve the doctor’s relationship with Senator Menendez.

The Associated Press noted that Dr. Melgen, a registered Democrat, has made political contributions to the tune of $193,350 since 1998, $14,200 of which has gone to Menendez. More significantly, the New York Times also reported that Melgen’s medical practice gave $700,000 to a super-PAC that spent more than $528,000 in support of Menendez’s re-election campaign in 2012.

This support has recently been scrutinized in light of a July 2012 Senate hearing, in which Menendez reportedly questioned two officials about why the Obama administration had not been more aggressive in promoting U.S. business interests abroad. During this questioning, the senator specifically highlighted a contract between the Dominican government and a company that would provide x-ray equipment for the country’s ports, namely for the purpose of detecting narcotics trafficking. The contract has been held up due to its enormous cost, which is estimated to be as much as $1 billion over 20 years. In the Senate hearings, Menendez did not refer to the company, ICSSI, by name. He also did not mention that Melgen has an ownership interest in the company.

Furthermore, the New York Times reports that Pedro Pablo Permuy, a long-time former aide to Menendez, was slated to be a top executive at ICSSI. Permuy was a senior legislative aide to the senator from 1993 to 1995 and his national security advisor from 2001 to 2003. Permuy denied being either a board member or an employee of the firm. But Dr. Melgen’s cousin, a lawyer based in Santo Domingo who on Monday publicly defended the doctor and senator and called for the contract’s enforcement, said that Mr. Permuy “will run the operations.” According to a spokesperson for Menendez, the senator knew nothing of his long-time former aide’s involvement with the company.

Over the weekend Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose former aides founded the super-PAC that contributed heavily to Menendez’s most recent re-election campaign, expressed his “utmost confidence” in the New Jersey senator and said he has no problem with his colleague’s continued chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee. And Menendez’s aides have said he regularly advocates for U.S. business abroad, and that doing so is appropriate for members of that committee.

In March 2010, New York Democratic Representative Charles Rangel stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee after being admonished by the House Ethics Committee and losing the support of his party. Given the news from today’s Washington Post and the ongoing Senate Ethics Committee and FBI investigations, it remains to be seen whether leaders of either party will call for Menendez to step down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

February 7, 2013 Posted by | Corruption | , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Senate Foreign Relations Chair Implicated in Corruption Investigation