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Questions Over Travel, Other Benefits at Center of Probes of US Lawmakers


FILE - Sen. Robert Menendez addresses fellow members of the Senate Banking Committee in Washington, Jan. 27, 2015.

FILE - Sen. Robert Menendez addresses fellow members of the Senate Banking Committee in Washington, Jan. 27, 2015.

Two members of the U.S. Congress are in hot water over allegations they used their offices to garner extravagant perks that ran afoul of federal campaign contributions

Senator Robert Menendez, a two-term Democrat from the East Coast state of New Jersey, was indicted Wednesday on 14 federal corruption charges. Menendez is accused of accepting improper favors, including Caribbean vacations and "loans" arranged by Florida eye surgeon Dr. Salomon Melgen. Menendez in turn acted on behalf of Melgen in congressional matters, investigators say. Melgren was indicted along with the senator.

Menendez is only the 12th senator indicted since the 1800s, according to the Senate Historical Office. Four among them were convicted.

Over in the House, flamboyant, 33-year-old Aaron Schock is getting investigators’ attention. The Republican from the Midwestern state of Illinois began his fourth congressional term in January and announced his resignation March 17.

The FBI and federal prosecutors both in Washington and the state capital of Springfield reportedly have launched a probe into Schock. The inquiry reportedly centers on three issues: huge mileage reimbursements by Schock for use of a personal vehicle said to be purchased with campaign funds, travel paid for by political donors, and other donations the lawmaker may not have reported.

Schock’s resignation, effective March 31, came a day after the Washington newspaper Politico challenged his expense report claims of a total of 170,000 official-use miles (273,588km) over the four years he owned a personal vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe SUV.

Politico went to the Illinois motor vehicle records division, where records of Schock’s 2014 disposal sale of the SUV are located, and found that the vehicle was traded in after going slightly over 81,000 miles (roughly 130,500km).

Along with the massive mileage reimbursement claims, investigators also are looking into the possibility that Schock improperly spent campaign funds to decorate his official Capitol Hill office in the Edwardian style of the TV series "Downton Abbey," with vermillion walls and baroque decorations.

Schock had been under scrutiny for some time by ethics watchdogs, who have demanded an official investigation into his behavior.

One such group, the Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington (CREW), repeatedly asked Capitol Hill’s nonpartisan Office for Congressional Ethics (OCE) to investigate whether that lavish office decoration was indeed done using campaign funds, a violation of congressional ethics rules.

Another issue raised by CREW and others was Schock’s extensive use of private luxury jets owned by contributors.

CREW’s deputy communications director, Stephen Santulli, told VOA via email: "The public deserves to know the full extent of all laws and rules that Rep. Schock may have broken during his time in office, and how he was able to avoid accountability for so long. It would do a great disservice to the public for the search for the truth to end simply because Rep. Schock’s political career has."

Petty corruption

Georgetown University government professor Mark Rom wondered why Schock, once seen as a rising star in the Republican Party, would throw his career away for seemingly so little.

"What surprises me about Rep. Schock is not the corruption charges. What surprises me is that the corruption is so petty," Rom said. "Is it worth selling your office, your reputation and your soul for a few thousand dollars in phony travel reimbursements?"

Private jet travel arranged by wealthy contributors is also a focus in the charges faced by Menendez, who was the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until the GOP gained control of the Senate this year.

Menedez is accused use of using Melgen’s private jet for two personal trips to the Dominican Republic in 2010. Menendez failed to follow Senate rules requiring him to report the trips as gifts or to promptly reimburse the surgeon for their costs. The senator says he paid Melgen $58,000 for the use of the plane – in 2013.

Questions also are being raised about $70,000 that Melgen gave to the senator, a sum the lawmaker says he has since repaid.

Menendez strongly maintained his innocence before the indictment, telling reporters he has "always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law."

Investigators also are looking into whether Menendez improperly tried to pressure officials of Medicare, the U.S. government’s health program for the elderly, to change its reimbursement policies so that Melgen could make millions of dollars more.

The New Jersey lawmaker admits he urged Medicare to change its doctor reimbursement policies, but claims his motivation was a belief that the present structure was unfair. The FBI, incidentally, raided the doctor’s offices in 2013 in search of unspecified evidence.

Along with the Department of Justice probes, both lawmakers could also face scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) because campaign contributions are involved.

But one official at the better-governance group Public Citizen says the commission's very structure and present nature may make it difficult for that body to take action in both cases.

"The FEC is comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans" and needs four votes to make a decision, Craig Holman, a Public Citizen lobbyist, told VOA via email.

Holman went on to say: "The number of deadlocked votes has [in recent times] risen ninefold over [compared to] the previous history of the commission. So there is little expectation that the FEC will step in and enforce any violations."

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.

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