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[Washington Babylon]

Menendez Case Heats Up


I recently noted here the investigation involving Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and his former staffer (and, based on published accounts and recollections from informed sources, paramour) Kay LiCausi. The feds are trying to determine whether Menendez improperly sent business to LiCausi after she left his staff in 2002 and went to work as a consultant, lobbyist, and fundraiser. Improper or not, the senator certainly pushed money in LiCausi’s direction. Menendez’s PAC and campaign paid big fees to her firm, KL Strategies, and he also helped her win a $130,000 fundraising contract from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Now the Hudson Reporter says that LiCausi “has become bitter at being left out on her own as federal authorities investigate whether or not Menendez allegedly steered business her way” and says that the investigation “may even be expanding to other former Menendez workers, who have since gone on to set up lobbying shop on their own.”

If that report is accurate, one person of note is Michael Hutton, Menendez’s former chief of staff. In 2003, he joined the firm of Bergner, Bockorny, Castagnetti, Hawkins & Brain and was soon working on dozens of accounts. His clients included a number of firms that are based in New Jersey or have major operations there, among them several pharmaceutical giants. (Before long, Hutton had bought himself a $915,000 home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.) The Hill reported in 2005 that Hutton and a colleague at his firm, Melissa Schulman, were among a small group of lobbyists who frequently attended gatherings in the office of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

Last year, Hutton founded his own lobbying firm. In January of 2007, he threw a huge party when Menendez was sworn in as a U.S. Senator at Washington’s 701 Pennsylvania restaurant. The affair was meant to be secret, but was discovered by columnist Mike Kelly of The Record. Funding for the party “came in the form of $5,000 contributions each from AT&T, Verizon, Fidelity, and the Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation,” he reported. The Medical Center Foundation is represented in Washington by–you guessed–Hutton.

(Incidentally, Hutton’s wife, Nooshen Amiri, has made a number of political donations in recent years, including several to Menendez. She works for the Inspector General of the Agriculture Department, but that never gets reported, as required, when she makes campaign contributions. Hard to imagine that Menendez’s office in particular doesn’t know where she works.)

There may yet prove to be nothing illegal in all this–by now just about every senior congressional staffer becomes a lobbyist and signs up clients with ties to his or her old office. It’s also true that the federal prosecutor in this case is a major Bush donor and GOP partisan by the name of Chris Christie, and that the origins of the investigation of Menendez look to be politically motivated. But it would be unwise to write the whole affair off as political harassment. Keep in mind that Menendez is a long-time political hack–and we are talking about New Jersey, home of dozens and dozens of successful corruption prosecutions in recent years, and a state that gives places like Florida and Louisiana a run for the money in terms of slimy politics.

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