The federal bribery case against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey marks the first time large-scale super PAC donations have figured prominently as evidence of a political corruption scheme, renewing questions about how truly independently such groups operate. The 22-count indictment against Menendez and wealthy Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen hinges in part on $600,000 that Melgen gave to the Senate Majority PAC — a Democratic super PAC — earmarked to support the senator’s 2012 reelection. Senate Majority PAC officials have not been accused of any wrongdoing. But the Justice Department argued in the court filing that the donations were among the things of value Melgen offered Menendez so the senator would use his position to help get the donor’s girlfriends visas to enter the country and to influence government officials to help Melgen’s businesses.
The case illustrates how super PACs — which can accept unlimited donations and are supposed to be walled off from the candidates they support — are viewed by donors as vehicles to ingratiate themselves with politicians.
“You just see that everything that goes on behind the scenes confirms people’s worst fears: that someone can swear that there’s no quid pro quo and no deals, but it’s very hard to know if that’s true, and it depends in your confidence in politicians to tell the truth,” said Richard L. Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies campaign finance regulation.