(CNSNews.com) – Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), whose net worth if valued between $317,005 and $680,000, according to his 2011 financial disclosure form, told CNN he was not initially aware of the cost of two 2010 trips to the Dominican Republic, lasting a total of six days, valued at a combined $58,500.
“It unfortunately fell through the cracks that our processes didn't catch -- moving forward, and making sure that we paid,” Menendez told CNN. “When it came to my attention that payment had not taken place, I personally paid for them in order to meet my obligation.”
He later said, “Now, if it had come to my attention before, I would have in fact, done it before. When it came to my attention, I did what was right, and I paid for it myself.”
The near $60,000 that fell through the cracks that the senator later became aware of made up between eight percent and 18 percent of his total assets. Menendez ranks 79 out of 100 in the Senate net worth, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Menendez is facing scrutiny for having accepted two trips to the Dominican Republic aboard the private plane of wealthy campaign contributor Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, a Florida eye surgeon. On Jan. 4, Menendez reimbursed Melgen for the two flights in 2010.The Senate Ethics Committee in investigating whether Menendez acted inappropriately in not reporting the plane trips. Last week, the FBI raided the West Palm Beach office of Dr. Melgen.
At the time of the trips, Menendez was chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which raises money for Democratic Senate candidates, from 2009-2011.
One of the flights in 2010 by Menendez aboard Melgen's plane was a campaign fundraising journey to the donor's residence in the Dominican Republic. That trip was reported to the Federal Election Commission.
However, Menendez categorized the other two trips as personal; one from Aug. 6-9, 2010, a round trip from South Florida to the Dominican Republic; another from Sept. 3-6, 2010, from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back.
Menendez press secretary Patricia Enright did not respond to CNSNews.com phone and e-mail inquiries on Monday and Tuesday.
Menendez spoke for the first time to a national audience on CNN Monday, when reporter Dana Bash asked him, “Senator, if you can explain why it took so long to pay back almost $60,000 in flights that you took with your friend?”
Menendez answered, “Well, I was in a big travel schedule in 2010 as the chair of the DSCC, plus my own campaign getting ready for a re-election cycle, and in the process of all of that, it unfortunately fell through the cracks that our processes didn't catch -- moving forward, and making sure that we paid. When it came to my attention that payment had not taken place, I personally paid for them in order to meet my obligation.”
Bash followed, “Because that's a lot of money, and as chair of the DSCC, you do so much traveling -- you know the rules. That's a pretty big chunk of money not to pay back.”
Menendez said, “Well, it's certainly the responsibility of myself, when it came to my attention to do so. Now, if it had come to my attention before, I would have in fact, done it before. When it came to my attention, I did what was right, and I paid for it myself.”
Bash followed up, “And you, of course, understand the perception that when you say it came to your attention, that you didn't pay for it until you got caught.”
Menendez responded, “Well, that's not the case. The bottom line is, when it came to my attention, I paid for it. There are a series of flights that were alleged. Several of them were shown not to be the case. But after the election, when I got to look at the allegations, and I did my own self-inspection, I ultimately came forward. As a matter of fact, one of those flights, I self-reported. It wasn't even anybody raised it.”
Menendez, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was previously chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, which has jurisdiction over matters involving the Dominican Republic.
In 2010, Melgen bought the Caribbean-based ICSSI that had been awarded a contract to provide screening of cargo from ports in the Dominican Republic, the New York Times reported last week. However, the Dominican government was refusing to honor the contract, complaining that it was exorbitant.
Menendez chaired a subcommittee hearing on July 31, 2012, where he brought up the matter, without naming Melgen or the company.
“You have another company that has American investors that is seeking to -- has a contract actually given to it by the Dominican -- currently ratified by the Dominican congress to do its X-Ray of all of the cargo that goes to the ports, which have been problematic, and for which in the past, narcotics have been included in those cargo,” Menendez said at the July hearing, according to a Congressional Quarterly transcript of the hearing.
“And they don't want to live by that contract either. You have, you know, some of the other countries that I have mentioned today with arbitration awards that have gone against them, and yet, they don't want to live by that. Well, what are we willing to do?” he added.
The witnesses at the hearing were Francisco Sanchez, undersecretary for international trade with the Department of Commerce, Jodi Bond, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Americas Division and Eric Farnsworth, vice president for Council of the Americas.
“Mr. Secretary, this might be more of your alleyway, but what are we willing to do with our directors at the IDB, IMF and other entities, because it just seems to me that if you do not send a message that you cannot, with impunity, go ahead and violate those agreements, trade agreements and arbitration awards which you agreed to as a process, and then still have us voting for you to get monies for a variety of purposes, then, you know what, if those countries can get away with that, they will?” Menendez said to Sanchez. “And that puts American companies at a tremendous disadvantage.”
Bash did not ask the senator about this on the air, but she said on CNN she asked him about it after the camera was off.
“As we were walking away, I also asked him about the allegations that he was trying to help his friend, Dr. Melgen, who is now somebody who is the owner of a potentially lucrative contract with the Dominican Republic, trying to help him to get that contract enforced,” Bash said. “And his answer was that he was just trying to do -- whatever he did was not because of a friend, but trying to do what was right for the policy of the United States with regard to his influence and position as then as a subcommittee chair overseeing that region “
According to Menendez’s 2011 financial disclosure form filed on May 9, 2012, he has rental property in Union City, N.J. valued at between $250,001 and $500,000; between $50,001 and $100,000 in a Congressional Federal Credit Union account; between $15,001 and $50,000 in Senate Federal Credit Union account; between $1,001 and $15,000 in Hudson City Savings Bank and Metropolitan Life Insurance stock valued between $1,001 and $15,000.