Ethics panel gives Menendez wide latitude for repayment of gifts from Melgen

Last month, the Senate Ethics Committee demanded that Sen. Bob Menendez pay back the value of the gifts he received from his friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, and amend his Senate financial disclosure reports to show those gifts, which the panel determined he had improperly failed to report for years.

But the committee provided no time frame for Menendez (D-N.J.) to amend the reports or for the repayments, nor did it detail exactly how much he has to pay back. According to ethics watchdogs, it’s completely up to Menendez, who is seeking reelection this year, as to when and how much he’ll reimburse and disclose.

“They are clearly leaving it up to Menendez to make his own determination …,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the ethics watchdog group Public Citizen. “The Senate Ethics Committee is notorious for being very lax and usually sweeping everything under the .”

In a scathing April 26 letter , the ethic committee’s three Democrats and three Republicans wrote that Menendez’s actions “violated Senate Rules and related statutes, and reflected discredit upon the Senate. … Finally, by this letter, you are hereby severely admonished.”

It was a politically damaging letter, coming months after Menendez and Melgen beat 18 federal corruption counts between them. Prosecutors charged Melgen had plied Menendez with private jet flights, first-class commercial travel and hotel and private villa stays in exchange for the senator’s help at the highest levels of the federal government. A jury deadlocked on all counts, which included one count of Menendez allegedly lying on his financial disclosure forms.

Menendez has repaid Melgen for some of the gifts. In January 2013, just as his relationship with Melgen was beginning to make headlines, Menendez repaid $58,500 for three flights on the doctor‘s private jet.

In comments two weeks ago, Menendez suggested he may not need to pay back any more money or amend his financial reports.

“Everything else that I’m aware of has already been dealt with financially,“ he said. “So we are inquiring to the committee what is it that [they’re] referring to because I think they made a generic statement without looking at the facts of what was largely already paid.”

Neither the Senate Ethics Committee nor a spokesman for for Menendez returned calls for comment.

Bob Hugin, Menendez’s likely Republican opponent in the November election, said the senator needs to set the record straight.

“The good people of New Jersey deserve to know the price that Florida-based Dr. Salomon Melgen paid to have Senator Menendez violate federal law and abuse his office to intervene in the Obama Justice Department’s investigation into Melgen’s Medicare fraud scheme,” Megan Piwowar, a spokeswoman for Hugin, said in a statement. “Despite being ordered by the Senate Ethics Committee to amend his Financial Disclosure Reports to include all the gifts he received from Melgen and to repay the fair market value of the gifts, Menendez has failed to comply. It’s time for Senator Menendez to come clean.”

The Department of Justice, in charging Menendez, estimated the gifts and political donations he received from Melgen were worth about $1 million.

But it’s unclear how to calculate the exact value.

Federal prosecutors outlined well over a dozen flights Menendez took — though they counted separate legs of single trips.

For instance, in calculating the flights Menendez took, prosecutors counted every leg of a trip a plane took. So when Melgen’s jet, empty of passengers, flew from his home base airport in Florida to New Jersey to pick up Menendez, it was considered a flight — as was the next flight with Menendez on board.

Other flights included several other people, and it’s not clear whether Menendez was responsible for picking up the tab for the entire flight or just a fraction of it. A few expenses are easier to pin down, such as the $1,500 per night Paris hotel room Melgen covered for Menendez with American Express points.

Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, said Senate rules require Menendez to reimburse the “fair market value” of the gifts, but that “it seems somewhat up to him to calculate that.”

As for the timeline, Libowitz said, “there is no enforceable deadline for when he has to pay it back. So he can conceivable stretch this for a long time. But there certainly should be.”

Katie Jennings contributed to this report.

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