New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez lobbied the Obama administration — through Hillary Clinton’s State Department — to obtain a visa for an Ecuadoran woman whose father is wanted for bank fraud in his home country and whose wealthy family donated heavily to Democrats, including Menendez.
The appearance of influence-peddling, uncovered by both The New York Times and NBC 4 New York in articles published Tuesday, could be the makings of yet another scandal for Menendez and could pose a political problem for Clinton, who is believed to be eyeing a 2016 run at the White House.
Menendez went to bat for Estafania Isaias, who was banned from entering the U.S. in 2007 after she engaged in what State Department officials considered a form of “alien smuggling” by attempting to sneak her maids into the U.S.
The woman’s father, Roberto Isaias, who lives in Miami, was convicted in absentia in Ecuador for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars from Filanbanco, where he was an executive.
Despite the suspension of her visa, Isaias was able to obtain short-term waivers which allowed her to visit her wealthy family in Florida. But in 2011, U.S. consular officials in Ecuador ceased granting the passes, citing growing concerns surrounding the family.
After this, the Isaias family sought help from Menendez and also donated $11,000 to his 2012 campaign. They also gave more than $125,000 to the Obama Victory Fund and the Democratic National Committee.
Soon after, Menendez and his staff began peppering Clinton and her former chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, with phone calls, letters, and emails “in support of” Isaias, NBC 4 New York reports.
According to The Times, Menendez’s office sent a total of seven letters to the State Department on behalf of the Isaias family.
Menendez claimed that Isaias hoped to work in the U.S. He also told Clinton he was “personally aware of Ms. Isaias’ circumstances” and that he believed she would “comply with all legal requirements,” according to NBC 4 New York.
Clinton’s State Department caved in 2012 and recommended Isaias’ waiver approval to the Department of Homeland Security.
On May 12, 2012, one day after Isaias’ mother made a $40,000 donation to Democrats, an email was sent from Menendez’s office celebrating the news of Isaias’ visa win.
Isaias’ mother donated a total of $105,000 in the first half of that year, according to The Times.
The paper also reported that Isaias’ visa was sponsored by Alfredo Balsera, a big-time Obama fundraiser who operates the consulting firm Balsera Communications.
Balsera is also backing Clinton for a likely 2016 presidential bid.
Fresh off of the win for Estafania Isaias, Menendez sent another letter to the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Services on behalf of her sister, Maria, who had been banned from entering the U.s. after she attempted to pull off a similar smuggling scheme involving maids.
The sisters’ mother sent yet another large donation — $20,000 — to the Obama Victory Fund.
This prompted immigration officials to contact the investigatory arm of the Department of Homeland Security, which in turn contacted the FBI.
It was reported earlier this year that Menendez was under FBI investigation for his relationship with the Isaias family. In January, it was revealed the the FBI was looking into whether Menendez broke the law during his attempts to help Roberto Isaias and his brother, William Isaias, stay in the U.S.
Menendez has also been investigated for his relationship with another one of his donors, Florida eye doctor Saloman Melgen. Melgen’s offices have been raided multiple times in connection with a multi-million-dollar Medicare billing investigation.
After his relationship with Melgen was revealed, Menendez re-paid $58,000 for trips he made on Melgen’s private jet to a resort in the Dominican Republic.
A number of immigration attorneys and U.S. officials found Menendez’s involvement in the Isaias visa request puzzling.
Linda Jewell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, told NBC 4 New York that the Isaias visa grant “would be quite unusual, especially for an applicant who is not a constituent of the member of Congress.”
According to The Times, Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson declined Menendez’s request to write a letter on behalf of Isaias.
Nelson’s spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, said that their office “discovered from the State Department that there were some red flags associated with the individual in question, and we took no further action.”
Other commentators were blunt about what they believe are Menendez’s motives.
“It is either what a lucky coincidence for the campaign contributor or it can be concluded that that’s impropriety,” Jan Brown, the chairman of the New York State Bar Immigration Committee, told NBC 4 New York.
“In my old profession as a prosecutor, timelines mean a lot,” Ken Boehm, chairman of the government watchdog group National Legal and Policy Center, told The New York Times. “When a donation happens and then something else happens, like the favor, as long as they are very, very close, that really paints a story.”
Menendez’s office denied any wrongdoing, with communications director Tricia Enright telling NBC 4 New York that the accusations were an attempt at “peddling garbage to smear the senator.”
“In this case, our office believed Ms. Isaias was wrongly denied approval of a waiver allowing her to work in the US on her H1-B visa, a waiver she had received six times before any engagement by our office,” Enright said.