"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance

 and a people who mean to be their own governors

 must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

Monday, October 16, 2006

Can a Corrupt Politician Be Elected To The U.S. Senate?

Bob Menendez likes to claim he courageously helped bring down a corrupt mayor and state senator, William Musto. Musto and six other Union City officials were ultimately convicted on 36 counts of racketeering, extortion and fraud, but we could never understand what role Menendez supposedly played that would enable him to list that accomplishment on his resume.

The story goes like this. A mob connected construction firm was given a contract from Union City officials to renovate two city high schools. The contractor, Rudolph Orlandini, paid city and school officials $700,000 in bribes so that he could over bill the district by more than $2 million for the construction work.

The scheme collapsed when the school board ran out of money before Orlandini had finished work on the school construction projects. Under pressure for more cash from his organized crime associates, Orlandini sought protection from the Feds. He confessed to his role in the scam and became a government informant, taping school board and city officials.

So Orlandini is the snitch who alerted the Feds to the crimes in Union City. Musto and six of his buddies took the bribes and the city was over billed by more than $2 million for the work. That leaves Menendez, the chief financial officer for the school board (that’s the tile Menendez lists on his official congressional bio for the job), as the guy approving the inflated payments and writing the checks to Orlandini’s firm.

Trial transcripts obtained by the Star-Ledger, show Menendez admitted that he had written two, one million dollar checks to Orlandini, for the same invoice. That’s a pretty big mistake Menendez failed to catch, either before the checks were written or after being cashed during account reconciliation.

Anyway, what’s so courageous about Menendez' actions? Menendez didn’t go to the authorities - the Feds came to him after being tipped off about the scam by Orlandini. According to transcripts of the trial, Menendez warned his political mentor, Musto about the federal probe. The trial transcripts also show Menendez didn’t come clean about tipping off Musto until after he found out from newspaper accounts that the secretly recorded tapes did not implicate him in the bribe taking. If Menendez wanted to take sides with the Feds, why did he tip off Musto?

As for helping to bring down the corrupt Musto, The Star-Ledger reported that even after Menendez was fully aware of the federal probe and “after 12 appearances before a grand jury that ultimately indicted Musto and six others, he supported Musto's bid for re-election as state senator and mayor”. Are these the actions of a man on the side of taxpayers and the law, or of a man completely tied in with the corrupt political machine?

So where does the courageous corruption busting part of the Menendez story come in? Apparently, Menendez wants people to believe he was heroic by testifying in court that he overpaid the contactor by $2 million. Menendez also wants people to forget that after the trial he said "I had no choice but to testify. I did not go running to Newark.” The record clearly shows Menendez was hardly a forthcoming or willing witness.

Menendez also claims he braved his court appearance by wearing a bulletproof vest, but the guy who actually brought down Musto and company, Orlandini, wound up in the federal witness protection program after he testified. Menendez safely continued his political career in Hudson County. His corruption busting story just doesn’t add up.

Menendez was the “little fish” the Feds let get away to catch the “big fish”. Unless you believe the Philadelphia Inquirer’s latest excuse for Menendez’ role in the scam – “he unknowingly approved overpayments to a contractor.” Writing two one million dollar checks for the same invoice takes the “unknowingly” excuse off the table for us, no matter how cavalierly Menendez is known for spending taxpayer money.

The latest news reports that Menendez used his congressional office to help a racketeer, that he pocketed money from a federally funded agency, and that his right hand man was taped shaking down a government contractor in Menendez’ name, hasn’t exactly dispelled his reputation as a corrupt political boss. But will any of this matter in the election?

To answer the question we posed in the title of this post - can a corrupt politician be elected to the U.S. Senate? – our answer is yes. New Jersey has a history of electing one corrupt political boss after the next. We suspect the strength of special interests backing guys like Menendez, coupled with apathy on the part of many of our fellow citizens, makes the disgusting potential possible. But, our hope springs eternal that this time will be different.


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