WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Robert Menendez defended his actions on behalf of a top campaign contributor, saying that being a donor doesn't disqualify someone from getting his help.
"The fact that someone is a donor does not do away with the right or the opportunity to consider whether something is correct or incorrect, to ask questions, raise concerns," Menendez said Thursday in an interview with the Spanish-language television network Univision, which is to air Sunday. Menendez expressed similar sentiments to another Spanish-language network, Telemundo, in an interview set to air the same day.
"It doesn't matter if it's someone who's a contributor or not a contributor, a minor contributor or a major contributor," he added.
Menendez's comments came in response to a question about whether actions he took benefited Dr. Solmon Melgen, a Florida doctor and one of Menendez's top campaign supporters. Menendez's ties to Melgen have come under scrutiny after an FBI raid last week at the physician's West Palm Beach, Fla., office.
Menendez said his longtime friendship with Melgen and the doctor's political donations hadn't prompted his actions.
"No one has bought me, No. 1," Menendez said. "No one. Ever. In the 20 years I've been in Congress, never has it been suggested that that could even be possible. Never in 40 years of public life. So I'm not going to reach this moment in my life to make that a possibility."
Menendez defended two instances where actions he took seemed to benefit Melgen.
He said he contacted the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to question the agency's billing practices and policies. At the time, Melgen was in a dispute with the agency over some $8.9 million in payments.
Menendez said in the Univision interview that in another instance, he was merely complaining about U.S. policy, not weighing in on behalf of one of Melgen's companies.
Menendez complained in July during a Senate subcommittee hearing about several instances of Latin American governments not honoring obligations to U.S. businesses. Menendez pressed two Obama administration officials about an unidentified company that provided cargo screening services at Dominican Republic ports. Media reports in the Dominican Republic have highlighted a contract feud between the Caribbean country's government and a port security firm, I.C.S.S.I.
The company was hired to provide X-ray screening at Dominican ports starting in 2002, according to a 2003 document reviewed by the AP. In recent years, the Dominican government had begun to balk at continuing the contract, citing high costs. In 2011, I.C.S.S.I. was bought by a Florida firm, Border Security Services LLC, which records show is managed by Melgen.
Menendez, who has acknowledged flying on Melgen's private plane to the Dominican Republic twice and failing to initially properly pay for the trips, once again denied allegations he had relations with prostitutes in the Caribbean country.
"Those are lies intended to slander me, and they're completely... not only absurd, but completely false," he told Univision.
Menendez has reimbursed some $58,500 from his personal funds to pay for the trips. Melgen has recently requested that online flight-tracking services block records showing the history of his plane's travel.
Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of the senator'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 the U.S. 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.