New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez made a telephone call -- described by some officials as "inappropriate" -- to a U.S. attorney investigating one of his top fundraisers, multiple Justice Department sources tell NBC 4 New York.
The call from the Democratic senator to New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman came while Fishman was attending meetings at Justice Department headquarters in Washington, just hours before Menendez sat in the gallery as President Obama delivered his State of the Union address in January of 2012, the sources say.
Menendez made the call after he learned that Joseph Bigica, a key fundraiser in New Jersey, was being investigated for campaign finance crimes, Justice Department sources say.
Menendez told Fishman he did not want news of the criminal investigation into his fundraiser becoming public as his Senate reelection campaign was just getting underway, according to sources.
Menendez’s communications director says the senator made the call because of a concern about media leaks.
"After hearing from several reporters about leaks of information in the Bigica case, Sen. Menendez both personally and through his attorney expressed his concern about such leaks to the U.S. attorney. He in no way expressed any opinions about how the case should be handled,” Tricia Enright, communications director for Menendez, said in a statement. “His only concern was that his reputation not be unfairly besmirched by false, anonymous statements. Sen. Menendez and his campaign, which was a victim of Bigica's crime, cooperated fully with the U.S. attorney's investigation every step of the way and we're glad that it was prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Legal experts say this type of call from a sitting senator to federal investigators raises questions.
“No one gets special treatment in the eyes of the law,” says Weysan Dun, former special agent in charge of the FBI in New Jersey. “So, for a prominent public official to attempt to influence a criminal investigation for their own benefit violates that concept of justice.”
Fishman has declined to comment on the matter.
At least five current and former Justice Department officials say Fishman immediately reported the call to his bosses in Washington.
Several sources describe the call as “a threat,” while others say they would not go that far but describe it as a serious ethical breach.
“A sitting senator calling a federal prosecutor involved in a federal criminal investigation that may involve that senator or someone close to him in a communication that could be interpreted as threatening is clearly unheard of, over the line, shocking,” says former federal prosecutor Scott Fredericksen.
Several months after the call, Bigica was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to funneling more than $100,000 in cash to the Menendez campaign. Menendez was not implicated in that scheme.
Joseph Valiquette, Richard Esposito, Robert Dembo, Kevin Monahan, Tom Winter and Donna Mendell contributed to this report.