Menendez indictment revives concerns over money and influence in politics

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The federal indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on bribery charges represents an important moment to examine the role money plays in politics, say ethics experts concerned with the way Washington works.

The New Jersey Democrat is facing allegations that he and his wife accepted “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes. In exchange, he allegedly used his influence to protect three New Jersey businessmen and benefit the government of Egypt. He pleaded not guilty, as did his wife and the businessmen.

Menendez has characterized the “baseless” charges as part of a “smear campaign” against him. Previous and separate federal corruption charges against Menendez were dropped in 2018.

The new criminal charges against Menendez have invited scrutiny of the legal ways money may influence U.S. public policy, including political contributions and lobbying.

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“Lobbyists give campaign contributions in part to get or maintain access to decision-makers, such as senior members of Congress like Senator Menendez,” Richard Briffault, a Columbia University Law School professor whose specializations include government ethics and campaign finance reform, told The Hill in an email.

“As a senior member, serving on major committees, including as ranking member or chair, he has a lot of influence, and so a lot of lobbyists will want access,” Briffault added.

Spokespeople for Menendez did not return The Hill’s request for comment.

But Paul Miller, founding partner at Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, takes issue with tying lobbyists to the Menendez story, which centers on alleged bribery by businessmen who are not registered lobbyists.

“This story has nothing to do with lobbying. It has everything to do with campaign finance. It has everything to do with people who were — apparently, according to allegations — doing illegal activity,” Miller told The Hill in a phone interview.

Miller is also the founder and president of the National Institute For Lobbying & Ethics (NILE), a trade association for lobbying and government affairs professionals that promotes ethical lobbying practices and education.

“The American people have a view of us, and that is we carry envelopes of cash; we bribe people; we do this, that and the other thing. Yet most people in this country, whether they realize it or not, are represented by somebody, whether you belong to a trade association, whether you belong to a church group,” Miller said. “Everybody is represented by somebody. They just may not know it.”

Why lobbyists may continue to contribute to Menendez

While Menendez has refused calls to resign, he stepped down from his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee following the indictment. He remains a member of the committee, as well as the Banking and Finance committees.

As he awaits his day in court, Menendez can continue to cast votes, debate legislation and carry out business as usual on these powerful committees, making it hard for K Street to cut him off.

“Even though he has been indicted, he is still a powerful figure who still has influence. Indictment is no guarantee of conviction,” Briffault said. “Their assessment of how long he is likely to remain [in] office, and how much influence he will continue to have, will influence how much they are willing to give him.”

Menendez’s campaign committee and leadership PAC have reported receiving more than $657,000 from lobbyists since his 2018 reelection, making him a top recipient of K Street contributions, according to federal campaign finance disclosures analyzed by the money-in-politics research group OpenSecrets.

Third-quarter campaign finance reports are due to the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15. They will provide a fuller picture of how much money Menendez has pulled in and potentially refunded since his indictment in late September.

“Lobbyists’ contributions to Menendez are likely to go down a little for two reasons: that he is no longer chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, and that he might have to resign because of indictments and therefore would not be in office much longer,” University of Exeter professor Amy McKay, who studies the role that influence groups play in the U.S. legislative process, told The Hill in an email.

Opportunities for money-in-politics reform

The First Amendment guarantees every American, including lobbyists, the right to participate in the political process.

Free speech also extends to political contributions; in the controversial 2010 decision in Citizens United, for example, the Supreme Court ruled the government cannot restrict independent expenditures by corporations, including nonprofits and labor unions, under the First Amendment.

“I think that the role of money in politics has made elected officials more responsive to their donors, rather than to the public. In particular, their big donors,” Danielle Caputo, legal counsel for ethics at Campaign Legal Center, told The Hill in a phone interview.

“Special interests have so much money compared to the average person that they’re almost able to drown out the voice of everyday Americans,” Caputo added.

Campaign Legal Center advocates for a range of reforms including transparency in campaign spending, public financing for elections and prohibitions on stock trading by members of Congress.

“The general public strongly favors members of Congress not being allowed to trade stock, because that raises inherent questions of whether members of Congress are doing something in the people’s benefit or in their own personal wallets’,” Caputo added.

More directly related to Menendez, who she emphasized was entitled to the presumption of innocence, Caputo recommended the creation of an independent Senate Ethics Committee or Office of Congressional Ethics that may be able to better catch and investigate complaints or questions before they rise to the level of criminal indictments.

There are also opportunities for reform within the lobbying profession, Miller said, namely targeting unregistered lobbyists who call themselves advisers, strategists or communications professionals to avoid registering under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA).

“The LDA has no value other than for — and again, no disrespect to you as a reporter — for reporters and people who want to make issue of who we represent and how much we get paid,” Miller said, referencing the “outdated” law requiring lobbyists to register and file quarterly activity disclosures with the clerk of the House of Representatives and the secretary of the Senate.

Miller said he would start with the definition of lobbying, which could be expanded to require more individuals to register as lobbyists and disclose their lobbying activities.

A “lobbyist” under the LDA is an individual who spends 20 percent or more of their time lobbying for a client in a three-month period. The NILE has proposed changing that definition to include an individual who lobbies for 10 or more hours, receives or expects to receive $5,000 or more for their services, or is employed by a firm that expects to receive that amount for the individual’s activities within that three-month window.

Caputo agreed this is a solid option, noting Congress could basically throw a dart and “hit something that would help kind of improve trust in the government.”

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