Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said Friday that a trip he took on board a private plane with a key Florida fundraiser “fell through the cracks” and that his initial failure to have his campaign pay for the trip was just an oversight.
Menendez says his staff has completed a thorough review of his travel and pointed to filings he made last week showing that his campaign paid back $11,000 for a free one-way jet trip provided to him by Salamon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and fundraiser.
It was the third jet trip provided by a fundraiser that he's had to reimburse.
When asked if there were any other unpaid private jet trips, the senator said,”I am confident that we have done a thorough review and that we have done what we needed to do.”
The senator's relationship with Melgen – and questions about the senator’s efforts to assist him in an $8 million dollar Medicare billing dispute and a separate port security deal -- is just one part of the ongoing criminal investigation. Both Melgen and Menendez have denied wrongdoing.
Another part of the criminal investigation involves the senator's relationship with two bankers from Ecuador. William and Roberto Isaias have been accused of embezzling over $100 million dollars as the Filanbanco bank they ran collapsed. The Isaias brothers deny wrongdoing but the government of Ecuador considers them convicted criminals.
The Isaias brothers have been living in Coral Gables, Fla., and Menendez wrote letters to top Homeland Security officials in support of the brother’s efforts to gain residency and stay in the U.S. Around the same time, Isaias family members donated $10,000 to the senator's 2012 campaign.
On Friday morning, Menendez visited a Newark garment factory in Newark, where many workers are immigrants from Ecuador. Some say their families lost money when the bank run by the Isaias brothers collapsed along with several other financial institutions. Worker Glady Ordanez said she generally supports Menendez, but thinks he is wrong to support the bankers.
“They hurt a lot of people in Ecuador. They should go back to Ecuador and jailed like the criminals they are,” Ordanez said of the Isaias brothers.
Another worker, Dora Catillo said: ”I think it's criminal. They should be jailed and return all the money they stole.”
The senator told NBC 4 New York he stands by his support of the Isaias family, saying they are being wrongly persecuted in their home country. He said at least a dozen other members of Congress agree with him.
He added, “You should ask the Bush and Obama administrations, if you think they are fugitives, why they allow them to stay here and why they don’t extradite them."
A lawyer for the Isaias family has said the brothers are innocent, have never stolen any money and run numerous successful businesses.
The government of Ecuador -- whose regime has been at odds with the U.S. in recent years -- issued a statement Friday: "We expect that the government of the United States, including members of Congress, would not support these convicted criminals, as we still hope to have them back in Ecuador to answer for their crimes."
The senator has not been charged with any crime and said for more than a year he has been the subject of a smear campaign.