Menendez Spent Up to 87% of His Wealth Repaying Donor for Flights

Facing questions about his relationship with a donor, the New Jersey senator appears to have emptied out his savings in an effort to put concerns to rest.

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Reuters

When Robert Menendez arrived in the U.S. Senate in 2006, he was a relative pauper in a chamber often called a millionaires' club. The New Jersey Democrat ranked 97th out of 100 senators in terms of his personal wealth, according to financial records filed that year and compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

So Menendez's decision last month to use his personal funds to reimburse a prominent political contributor $58,500 for two flights to the Dominican Republic came at a major cost. The repayment amounts to between 32 percent and 87 percent of the assets Menendez reported holding in bank accounts and stock, according to his latest financial-disclosure form, which was filed last year.

Menendez repaid Florida eye doctor and political donor Salomon Melgen only after his free flights aboard Melgen's plane became public and the subject of a Senate ethics complaint. A local New Jersey Republican group filed a complaint last November, alleging the senator had broken Senate rules by "repeatedly flying on a private jet to the Dominican Republic, and other locations." Menendez reimbursed Melgen the $58,500 two months later, on Jan. 4, according to his office.

In telling his own story, Menendez likes to talk about his scrappy roots. The first paragraph of the biography on his official Senate website notes that he is the son of immigrants who grew up in a tenement in Union City, N.J. Menendez, 59, rose from the local school board to mayor to state legislator to House member to U.S. senator. He recently became the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As Menendez has accumulated political power, however, he has not accumulated great wealth. His 2011 financial disclosure, filed last May, lists checking and savings accounts that held somewhere between $66,003 and $165,000. (Congressional disclosure forms list assets in ranges.) He also owned stock in a single company, Metropolitan Life Insurance, worth between $1,001 and $15,000. A rental property he owned in Union City generated between $15,001 and $50,000 in income in 2011. (The property itself was valued at between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars, with Me-nendez still owing somewhere between $50,001 and $100,000 on the mortgage, the disclosure report shows.)

It would appear to be a comfortable enough living, especially with a senator's annual $174,000 salary. But not so comfortable that cutting a $58,500 check couldn't have a profound impact.

Menendez's office declined to comment on the senator's personal finances or the details of how he managed to pay back the $58,500 for the two flights.

On Monday, Menendez told CNN that paying for the flights simply "fell through the cracks."

"When it came to my attention that payment had not taken place, I personally paid for them in order to meet my obligation," he said.

Government watchdogs are dubious. They say Menendez's financial situation adds fuel to questions about his motives and whether the free flights he accepted were a simple oversight.

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Shane Goldmacher is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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