When prosecutors decided last week to drop bribery charges against Sen. Robert Menendez, it was not so much a vindication for Menendez as an indictment of the law against corruption.
Federal prosecutors charged the New Jersey Democrat with violating a federal law that prohibits public officials from accepting anything of value in return for “being influenced in the performance of any official act.” The law defines an official act as “any decision or action” on any matter. For decades, the courts had taken an expansive view of “official acts,” and public officials were convicted of corruption based on general abuses of power.
In 2016, however, the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of “official acts” practically out of existence, ruling that they must be formal exercises of power, such as signing an executive order or casting a vote. That decision may have led the judge in the Menendez case to throw out some of the charges he faced.
Menendez did not dispute the core facts in the case: He accepted hotel rooms, flights and campaign donations from someone who also happened to occasionally need help dealing with federal agencies.
Menendez’s defense boiled down to this: I was just helping a friend.
His trial ended in a hung jury. Prosecutors intended to retry him, but after the judge threw out of many of the most serious charges, they threw up their hands and walked away -- leaving Menendez to walk free.
Menendez still must answer to the Senate Ethics Committee for his transgressions, including his failure to report gifts he received. That’s appropriate, but hardly sufficient.
The U.S. needs tougher ethics laws that require public disclosure of not only of gifts but also of actions taken on behalf of donors. Most important is for Congress to restore the broader meaning of the phrase “official acts.” Otherwise, it will become nearly impossible to convict public officials of the most common types of corruption, greatly diminishing public confidence in government.
It would be natural for a president who campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp” to lead the fight for these changes. Yet Donald Trump has shown no interest following through. When it comes to special interest politics, he has been following the usual Washington playbook: rewarding large campaign donors with jobs, hiring lobbyists to oversee their former (and likely future) bosses, and allowing industry insiders to call the shots on regulatory matters.
The case against Menendez is over.
But the case for stronger anti-corruption laws is stronger than ever.