WASHINGTON (AP) — It's hard to limit a rich and willing donor's ability to ingratiate himself with members of Congress, as prosecutors showed this week in their charges against Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Lawmakers in both parties sometimes legally use a supporter's generosity to spread donations to colleagues.
A small part of the 68-page indictment describes how Menendez's big donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, agreed to do more after giving Menendez's campaign the legal limit in 2012. At Menendez's request, the document says, Melgen and his wife gave $8,000 to the campaign of a senator later identified as Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
An email from Menendez's campaign said Klobuchar "raised $25,000 for our campaign, and now we are returning the favor," the indictment states.
Although such requested donations are legal and fairly common, Klobuchar's staff said she will return campaign contributions from Melgen and Menendez.
The indictment doesn't suggest any wrongdoing in Melgen's campaign donation to Klobuchar, identified only as "Senator 1." Rather, it's listed as one of many ways that Menendez and Melgen helped each other.
The indictment accuses Menendez of accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for political favors. Menendez has pleaded not guilty.
The document suggests, but doesn't specify, that Klobuchar had supporters in 2012 willing to contribute more money after giving her campaign the legal limit. Campaign veterans say that's the most likely reason that Klobuchar would send $25,000 to Menendez's campaign when she faced her own re-election race.
The indictment says a Menendez campaign fundraiser told the senator in July 2012 that Melgen was willing to give Klobuchar's campaign $10,000, "but you have to email him and ask."
"Do we need that much?" Menendez replied. After the aide said their team had secured "$17,000 in commitments" to Klobuchar, the indictment says, Menendez wrote back: "OK, so I will ask for $8k," for a total of $25,000.
The Melgens soon sent $8,000 to Klobuchar's campaign.
The funding of U.S. campaigns "is a coat of many pockets," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. The Melgen-Klobuchar episode, she said, used only one of those pockets.
McGehee said a wealthy donor wanting close ties to a lawmaker can give to the lawmaker's campaign, "leadership PAC," non-profit foundation, designated colleagues and other causes associated with the lawmaker.
McGehee said it wasn't surprising that Melgen was willing to give Klobuchar's campaign $10,000, but only if Menendez requested it himself.
At that level of giving, she said, donors want to hear "from the senators themselves."