Menendez Downfall Could Be Diplomacy's Windfall

03/30/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

Co-authored by Katie Powers

Senator Robert Menendez, a powerful Democrat from New Jersey, has been down on his luck lately. He is currently under federal investigation for corruption, and although the senator has denied all allegations, charges are expected to be filed against him any day now.

This is not the first time the senator has been investigated. In fact, his wikipedia page even considers the 'Controversies' section too long to read and in need of subsections. Recently, the senator has been accused of using his government position to aid his long-time friend and donor, Dr. Soloman Melgen.

In 2008, when Dr. Melgen got into a dispute for overbilling Medicare, Sen. Menendez used his position on the Finance Committee to push for reforms of the Medicare multidosing policy -- a change that would have resulted in millions of dollars more for Melgen's practice. Menendez also used his power to persuade the Department of Homeland Security not to provide cargo screening equipment to the Dominican Republic since it would hurt the profits from Melgen's private company, which provides similar equipment.

In both the Medicare and Homeland Security cases, any damage to the financials of Dr. Melgen would probably have damaged the financials of Senator Menendez. In 2012 alone, Dr. Melgen received $21 million dollars in reimbursements from Medicare. In turn, he contributed generously to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DMCC), including contributions upward of $1 million dollars to campaigns and committees Menendez served on. Dr. Melgen has been very generous over the years in the gifts he has given Menendez. "Sen. Menendez's relationship with Dr. Melgen is transactional: campaign cash and lavish gifts for the senator, official favors and influence for the businessman," according to Citizens for Ethics and Responsibilities in Washington (CREW). Since the investigations have begun, Menendez has tried to clean up his act by documenting the private gifts and favors given to him by Dr. Melgen, including repaying him $60,000 for several flights he took on Melgen's private plane.

Menendez's indictment would be unfortunate for his family, his career, and his reputation, but it could bode well for world peace. While Menendez is progressive on issues such as immigration reform and gay rights, he is a hawk on two key foreign policy issues: Iran and Cuba. As ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, his conservative influence is throwing a wrench in the administration's negotiations with both nations. Bucking the positions of President Obama and most of his Democratic colleagues in Congress, Menendez has become "politically valuable" to the Republican party. In fact, more Republicans are outwardly criticizing the Justice Department for its investigation of Menendez than his own Democratic colleagues.

As the most senior of the three Latinos in the Senate (all of whom are of Cuban descent), Menendez could play a leadership role in revamping of relations with Cuba after 54 years of a failed policy. Instead, Menendez opposes the opening. In a Foreign Relations subcommittee meeting on the topic, Menendez stated, "It was a bad deal, and I will oppose any further changes to U.S. policy - any additional sanctions relief - that are not conditioned on clear, upfront concessions from the Castro regime that moves the Cuban people toward a free and open democratic government."

During a recent CODEPINK delegation to Cuba, former Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon called out U.S. officials like Menendez for their hypocrisy. "The US continues to support countries like Saudi Arabia that don't recognize the right of women but instead focuses on what it says are Cuba's human rights violations."

Menendez also supports the crippling Cuba embargo that impoverishes the Cuban people and denies them critical imports, including medical technology from U.S. companies.

As a member of the Human Rights Caucus within the Senate, Menendez should recognize the normalization process as a way to uplift the Cuban people. He should encourage more interactions between Cubans and Americans by lifting the U.S. travel restrictions.

Unfortunately, Menendez is even worse when it comes to Iran. He is the co-author of the Kirk-Menendez bill, which has been threatening the nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran by placing additional sanctions on the Iranian regime before a deal can be reached. Menendez' position is that of the majority Republican Congress, which is critical of the Iran negotiations due to their alignment with AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the Israeli government.

The Iranians have threatened to walk away from the negotiating table if Congress votes to implement additional sanctions, which is precisely what the Kirk-Menendez bill aims to do. According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, "This bill [Kirk-Menendez] by its many steps to close the window for diplomacy with Iran, could end the international sanctions regime and lead either to a nuclear armed Iran or to a war in which US armed forces might well be active participants."

A Justice Department indictment -- and conviction -- of Menendez on ethics violation would be fitting for the senator. Menendez not only seemingly plays loose with favors for Dr. Melgen; he plays loose with issues of war and peace. The people of New Jersey, and the rest of the country, deserve better.

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange.

Katie Powers is a sophomore at Northeastern University studying Political Science and International Affairs. She is currently working in the CODEPINK Washington, DC office.