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How Sen. Menendez undercut an ethics probe -- and spared himself some extra FBI scrutiny

Just weeks before the FBI raided his friend’s South Florida business, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez put another legal issue to rest by cutting a $58,500 check to cover the cost of two air-charter trips to the Dominican Republic.

By reimbursing Dr. Salomon Melgen for the flights, the New Jersey Democrat effectively undercut a standing ethics complaint and the possibility he’d face something more serious: a possible federal charge.

“It’s technically a federal crime to not report gifts on a federal financial-disclosure form,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington called CREW.

The flights, however, would no longer be considered a gift because Menendez just paid for them. And it doesn’t matter that he took the then-freebie flights more than two years ago, in 2010.

Menendez would have been required to disclose the flights on his federal financial disclosure forms if the trips were considered gifts that he didn’t pay for.

But FBI agents aren’t done examining Menendez, who drew federal scrutiny after a shadowy tipster accused him and Melgen last year of hiring underage prostitutes.

Menendez called the charges “fallacious.” His office said that the senator’s decision to pay for the flights was a case of him taking responsibility for the error because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Menendez cut the personal check to Melgen on Jan. 4. Weeks later, this Tuesday and Wednesday, Melgen's office was raided. Prior to the raid, the Senator was unaware of either the investigation or the raid itself.

Ostensibly, the raid concerned a separate criminal probe conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which typically investigates Medicare fraud. However, agents were also looking for evidence in the other case concerning the alleged underaged prostitutes.

The allegations of illicit contact with prostitutes were reported right before Menendez's election by the conservative Daily Caller website. Menendez said it was politically motivated, a charge the website denies.

The case exploded in Washington after the raid this week, however.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who days before had trashed the reports about Menendez, was mum.

"First of all, Bob Menendez is my friend. He's an outstanding senator," Reid said. "He is now the new chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Any questions in this regard, direct to him. I don't know anything about it."

White House spokesman Jay Carney had no comment, either.

Menendez's chief of staff, Danny O'Brien, said the senator maintains his innocence and has taken responsibility for his error in failing to pay for his charter flights with Melgen, a longtime friend.

"The Senator realized it was an oversight, that it was sloppy," O'Brien said. "It was junior varsity at best."

O'Brien said the error was caught after Menendez was accused in a Republican ethics complaint about the flights. O'Brien double-check the senator's schedule and compared it over the years with flight logs of Melgen's plane, which he researched online.

Menendez was wrongly accused of taking three flights on Melgen's plane, O'Brien said; Menendez wasn't on those trips. Another flight was already lawfully reported. But one flight flagged in the complaint hadn't been reported or paid for. And, O'Brien said, they found a second flight Menendez hadn't paid for that wasn't in the complaint. 

So Menendez paid for both of them, he said.

Under the Senate's ethics rules, Menendez won't face any punishment now that he has paid Melgen back.

"He'll probably get a letter saying: You shouldn't have done that," said CREW's Sloan.

The cost, $58,500, is so high because members of Congress have to pay the charter rate, as opposed to the commercial-air rate, for these types of flights.

The payout is significant for Menendez as well. His most-recent financial disclosure forms show he had as little as $66,000 and as much as $165,00 in the bank.

"Looking at his forms, it appears $58,500 is a sizable amount of money," said Viveca Novak, an analyst with Open Secrets, a government-disclosure group.