Commentary Magazine


Topic: prostitution

Why We Should Care About the Menendez Scandal

This ought to have been a happy time for New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Democrat who was re-elected easily last November is succeeding John Kerry as chairman of the important Foreign Relations Committee. That should afford him the opportunity to continue to cement his role as a major player in the Senate. Given Menendez’s strong support for Israel and his willingness to stand up to the administration on issues like Iran sanctions, his elevation was seen as an improvement over Kerry even by many Republicans. But instead of basking in the glow of his rise to new prominence the senator is spending his time dodging the press and refusing to answer questions about his efforts to help the business of a wealthy donor and his alleged participation in sex parties with prostitutes that were hosted by his friend.

The story mixes the more mundane ethical questions about how far politicians are prepared to go to help their donors and the free stuff they get in return–including flights and vacations in the Dominican Republic that Menendez has already been hounded into paying for. But when the free stuff includes sex with underage prostitutes, as the Daily Caller has reported, then it becomes a toxic mix of good government concerns and tabloid sensationalism.

All this places Menendez in the soup and makes his otherwise charmed existence a living hell so long as the press is interested in pursuing the story. But, if there are no real consequences, either in terms of prosecution or political retribution for the senator, it is entirely possible that once the dust settles he will remain in his seat and continue on as if nothing had happened. If so, is this just a matter of political business as usual and a partisan press dredging up a salacious story to embarrass a public figure? That may be what Menendez and those spinning for him will tell us, but there is more here at stake than his fate. Though there are many examples of the public giving ethically challenged politicians a pass, that doesn’t mean we should tolerate this sort of behavior.

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This ought to have been a happy time for New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. The Democrat who was re-elected easily last November is succeeding John Kerry as chairman of the important Foreign Relations Committee. That should afford him the opportunity to continue to cement his role as a major player in the Senate. Given Menendez’s strong support for Israel and his willingness to stand up to the administration on issues like Iran sanctions, his elevation was seen as an improvement over Kerry even by many Republicans. But instead of basking in the glow of his rise to new prominence the senator is spending his time dodging the press and refusing to answer questions about his efforts to help the business of a wealthy donor and his alleged participation in sex parties with prostitutes that were hosted by his friend.

The story mixes the more mundane ethical questions about how far politicians are prepared to go to help their donors and the free stuff they get in return–including flights and vacations in the Dominican Republic that Menendez has already been hounded into paying for. But when the free stuff includes sex with underage prostitutes, as the Daily Caller has reported, then it becomes a toxic mix of good government concerns and tabloid sensationalism.

All this places Menendez in the soup and makes his otherwise charmed existence a living hell so long as the press is interested in pursuing the story. But, if there are no real consequences, either in terms of prosecution or political retribution for the senator, it is entirely possible that once the dust settles he will remain in his seat and continue on as if nothing had happened. If so, is this just a matter of political business as usual and a partisan press dredging up a salacious story to embarrass a public figure? That may be what Menendez and those spinning for him will tell us, but there is more here at stake than his fate. Though there are many examples of the public giving ethically challenged politicians a pass, that doesn’t mean we should tolerate this sort of behavior.

In the past few years, there are some examples of politicians who paid with their careers for misbehavior. Eliot Spitzer felt compelled to resign when his patronage of high-end prostitutes was revealed. Representative Chris Lee, a Western New York Republican, was more or less thrown out of Congress by John Boehner after he was outed for doing some online philandering, including a shirtless photo. More memorably, Anthony Weiner resigned after his bizarre practice of sending naked photos of himself to women via Twitter was uncovered.

Of the three, only Lee could be said to have lost his career simply because of misconduct. Spitzer’s attempts to cover his tracks involved money laundering. Had he been on the other side of the bar in this case, the former prosecutor would almost certainly have insisted on indicting anyone who did the same; but fortunately for him, the authorities contented themselves with his resignation. Weiner’s weeks of public lying about the case and his false accusations that the late Andrew Breitbart concocted the story was more culpable than his strange doings.

Others have been luckier. Louisiana Senator David Vitter was twice linked to prostitution but refused to resign. That may have something to do with his state’s somewhat liberal approach to ethics, and the Republican is actually contemplating a run for governor after Bobby Jindal leaves office.

As for cases that were just about corruption without any sex, New York Representative Charles Rangel broke laws and evaded taxes, but few in his district or his party seem to care and he remains a much-liked institution within the House Democratic caucus.

Menendez is certainly hoping to get the Vitter or Rangel treatment, and maybe he will if evidence uncovered by the FBI (which recently raided the offices of his donor and friend Dr. Salomon Mengen) or the Senate Ethics Committee aren’t able to prosecute or censure him.

In an era where the public’s cynicism about Congress has risen to alarming levels, there is a tendency to react to any ethical violation with an “everyone does it” attitude. A country that not only forgave Bill Clinton’s lies and disgusting behavior but regarded his critics as worthier of criticism than the former president may think any story involving sex is, almost by definition, not worth getting worked up about.

But there are good reasons to care about the Menendez story.

The first is that if Menendez has involved the Senate in a business transaction between the United States and the Dominican Republic in order to benefit a friend there are obvious legal implications. Politicians do favors for friends and donors all the time and label it constituent service. But the favors being thrown around by Mengen to his favorite senator do raise questions about Menendez’s motives.

Since the Citizens United decision freed up individuals and groups to contribute to candidates and causes without federal interference, liberals have acted as if advocacy on issues is corrupt if it involves spending money. But the real corruption doesn’t involve left-wing and media piñatas like Sheldon Adelson, who spend their money to promote their beliefs, but rather traditional influence peddlers like Menendez whose purchase is motivated by strictly pecuniary interests.

Second, the sex angle isn’t just the sort of hanky-panky on the side that is an unfortunate Congressional tradition, but about prostitution. Libertarians may see it as a victimless crime, and perhaps when it is the sort of pricey operation that Spitzer patronized that’s how we should think of it. But what is alleged in this story is something far more sordid and not only because it may have involved under-aged prostitutes.

Human trafficking in countries like the Dominican Republic is a problem that the United States has not always treated as a serious concern. It is a terrible crime against women and girls that goes on throughout the world and draws relatively limited attention from both governments and the press. If a U.S. Senator, especially one that has spoken up in different contexts as a voice for human rights, is guilty of taking part in sex parties where such girls are procured, this is a far greater scandal than a mere conflict of interest case or free trips.

Third, though it is considered a somewhat antiquated concept in our enlightened times, the idea that our political leaders should be held to a high standard of personal conduct is one that deserves more support rather than the usual derision. Public office is a privilege and not a possession even if you are a Democrat in a deep blue state or a Republican in a red one with little fear of political opponents. When our leaders degrade themselves in this manner they do more than provide fodder for the tabloids. They shame our republic and the voters that honored them with office. It is not Puritanism to demand that senators and members of Congress behave in an honorable manner and to avoid bringing their offices into disrepute.

Menendez deserves a presumption of innocence, but if there is some fire behind all this smoke there have to be consequences for him.

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Jewish Dems Had No Religious Duty to Smear Adelson

The National Jewish Democratic Council may have bit off more than it could chew with its allegations about Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apologized for making similar charges that the casino mogul profited from prostitution in his Macau property in China. But the NJDC has yet to back off on its attack, and the result is that Adelson has filed a $60 million libel lawsuit against the group.

Optimistic Jewish Democrats may hope the group will be able to raise some money from liberals who hate the billionaire who has contributed record amounts to Republican candidates as well as many Jewish philanthropic causes. But the problem with the NJDC posing as a martyr being harassed by the deep-pocketed conservative is that their behavior has been indefensible. Disagree with Adelson’s stands on the issues and his taste in candidates if you like, but calling someone a pimp without a shred of proof is not the stuff of First Amendment poster children. Proving libel is difficult, but on the face of it, the NJDC is going to be hard-pressed to prove its mudslinging wasn’t knowingly false as well as malicious.

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The National Jewish Democratic Council may have bit off more than it could chew with its allegations about Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has apologized for making similar charges that the casino mogul profited from prostitution in his Macau property in China. But the NJDC has yet to back off on its attack, and the result is that Adelson has filed a $60 million libel lawsuit against the group.

Optimistic Jewish Democrats may hope the group will be able to raise some money from liberals who hate the billionaire who has contributed record amounts to Republican candidates as well as many Jewish philanthropic causes. But the problem with the NJDC posing as a martyr being harassed by the deep-pocketed conservative is that their behavior has been indefensible. Disagree with Adelson’s stands on the issues and his taste in candidates if you like, but calling someone a pimp without a shred of proof is not the stuff of First Amendment poster children. Proving libel is difficult, but on the face of it, the NJDC is going to be hard-pressed to prove its mudslinging wasn’t knowingly false as well as malicious.

The NJDC put a brave face on the mess they talked themselves into with the following statement:

We will not be bullied into submission, and we will not be silenced by power. This is not Putin’s Russia, and in America, political speech regarding one of the most well-known public figures in our country is a fundamental right. One would think the person making greatest use of the Citizens United ruling would understand this. To be sure, referencing mainstream press accounts examining the conduct of a public figure and his business ventures—as we did—is wholly appropriate. Indeed, it is both an American and a Jewish obligation to ask hard questions of powerful individuals like Mr. Adelson, just as it is incumbent upon us to praise his wonderful philanthropic endeavors.

We know that we were well within our rights, and we will defend ourselves against this SLAPP suit as far and as long as necessary. We simply will not be bullied, and we will not be silenced.

They are right that political speech is protected, a point that the group — like other opponents of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling — often forgets. But there is a not so fine line between criticizing a public figure and spreading allegations that he is involved in prostitution. There was plenty of room for them to take shots at Adelson without using a palpably false smear. Even billionaires have a right to protect themselves against that sort of libel, and it will now be up to the NJDC to wise up and make an apology or face some serious economic consequences.

Even more to the point, the NJDC shouldn’t be dragging Judaism into this sordid fight they’ve started. Far from it being a specifically Jewish obligation to raise such issues, there is actually a specific religious prohibition against this sort of libel. Indeed, if there is anything that defines the concept of lashon hara or “evil tongue” — the provision in Jewish religious law against defamatory speech — it is calling a political opponent a pimp. For them to claim there was any such duty to smear him in this manner makes a mockery of Judaism.

Given the egregious nature of the NJDC’s offense, Adelson is well within his rights in pursuing a libel suit. Contrary to the NJDC’s whiny defense, this is not a SLAPP suit intended to silence legitimate or even outlandish political speech. Associating someone with prostitution is simply beyond the pale, even in the nasty world of politics.

That’s a lesson the group is about to learn to its sorrow. Though they may sound tough now, there’s little doubt they will soon be on their knees either begging Adelson to accept an apology or asking a court to let them off only because they didn’t know how false their wild accusations actually were.

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