The Cable

Senate Foreign Policy Chief Pushes Back Against New Allegations of Misconduct

One of the Senate's most powerful lawmakers, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, forcefully denied new allegations that he'd improperly gone to bat for a pair  of Ecuadorian bankers accused of embezzling money as their bank imploded.

It was not the first time the chairman was forced to stamp out rumors of a federal investigation into his actions. During his press briefing in New Jersey, Menendez referenced past allegations of misconduct and criticized the media for relying on anonymous sourcing.

"A year after a false smear campaign was launched against me, once again we see anonymous sources," Menendez said. "I wish we had these sources quoted. We seem to have gone to a journalistic level where just anonymous sources brings everyone to a conclusion about these ridiculous allegations."

The allegations against the senator stem from an NBC 4 New York investigation into his ties with William and Roberto Isaias, brothers convicted in absentia for embezzling millions from Filanbanco, an Ecuadorian bank. According to the report, the Justice Department is looking into Menendez's efforts to help the fugitive bankers avoid extradition to Ecuador.

In the mid-90s, the Isaias brothers ran Ecuador's largest bank. They were sued in 2009 by Quito for allegedly embezzling funds and moving them to Florida where they live. The attorney for the brothers, Xavier Castro Munoz, denied the accusations and identified his clients as victims of political persecution. Menendez's office reportedly made calls and letters to federal agencies on their behalf, actions Menendez defended on Friday.

"In this particular case my office made standard inquiries on behalf of the Isaias family because we have every reason to believe they have been victims of political persecution in their native country of Ecuador," he said, "including specifically confiscation of media outlets that they own, which were critical of the government.

Federal investigators are also examining Menendez's relationship with Salomon Melgen, a campaign donor and Florida ophthalmologist. Last year, he denied allegations that he improperly assisted Melgen by intervening in a Medicare-billing dispute and working to revive a dormant port security contract in the Dominican Republic.

Beyond that, he was also subjected to spurious prostitution allegations in the Dominican Republic produced by the conservative news site, The Daily Caller. Those insinuations collapsed under the weight of media scrutiny.

A spokesman for Menendez disputed that the chairman's tenure has been marked by controversy and highlighted the committee's central role in high-profile foreign policy issues like helping the Obama administration build support for potential military strikes against the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad after the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people. The spokesman also highlighted Menendez's role in helping to renew the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and passing new embassy funding legislation.

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The Cable

A Rare Bit of Good News About Syria: Peace Talks Will Continue

The on-again, off-again Syria peace talks are on again, again.

Syrian opposition leaders sat down in the same room as representatives of the government of Bashar al-Assad for the first time Wednesday, and the session went off the rails so quickly - with the two sides trading insults and completely ignoring United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon - that it seemed like they wouldn't gather in the same room again.

On Friday, though, Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria offered what amounts to good news: the two sides have agreed to sit down in the same room Saturday for actual negotiations over the country's political future. Though it remained unclear whether they would actually speak to one another or communicate through Brahimi.

"We have agreed that we will meet in the same room," Brahimi told reporters at a packed press conference. "The discussions that I had with the two parties were encouraging and we are looking forward to our meetings."

Speaking at a packed press conference, Brahimi also shot down reports that Syria's delegation, led by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, intended to walk out of the talks. Moualem had raised eyebrows Wednesday when he accused the Syrian opposition of selling their souls to the "highest bidder" and blew off Ban's pleas that he stop talking after his allotted time had passed

Brahimi, a U.N. troubleshooter who has led peace talks in Afghanistan and Iraq, provided few details on the substance of the ongoing talks, saying he didn't want to share his "secrets" with the press at such an early stage.

Still, Brahimi said that he expected the talks to continue through next week and that the Syrian parties would likely suspend the talks for a few days at some stage to brief allies and officials back in the region.

The "meat" of the discussions, he said, would address the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique, which obliges combatants on both sides of Syria's civil war to halt the fighting, and which calls for the creation of a transitional government with "full executive powers" led by an individual accepted by both sides.

There appeared virtually no prospect for movement on a political transition, with Syrian officials insisting that Assad would remain in power and the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for the loose-knit set of Syrian opposition groups, saying they will not accept a deal that leaves Assad in power. U.S. officials have also said that Assad will have to give up power as part of the political transition process.

So far, the two parties have yet to discuss the "core" issues contained in the Geneva Communique, Brahimi said. But he suggested that he would start the talks with less controversial issues, seeking to build on ongoing U.N. efforts to ensure that humanitarian relief workers could reach communities trapped behind enemy lines.

"We are going to talk about [humanitarian] access," he said. "We are going to talk about ending violence."

The Syrian government and some armed opposition groups have laid siege to several towns, cutting off hundreds of thousands civilians from food, medicine or other relief supplies.

In advance of this week's talks, the Syrian government had proposed a plan for a ceasefire around Aleppo to enable some access to U.N. relief workers. Opposition sources say they would welcome any steps that would lead to the distribution of relief to civilians. But they say Syria is obliged to lift the siege on these towns, and that this weeks talks should focus on the need to establish a transitional government and force Assad from power.

Brahimi appeared irritated by a barrage of questions from pro-Syrian government reporters at the press conference, one of whom questioned Brahimi's commitment to address the threat posed by foreign extremists. 

"Nobody wants...terrorism to continue in Syria; nobody wants that except the terrorists themselves," Brahimi responded. "If we manage to save Syria, saving Syria will also mean saving it from terrorism."

The diplomat, a veteran of other seemingly hopeless talks, said it was too early to completely give up hope.

"We never expected it to be easy and I'm sure it's not going to be," he said. "The two parties understand what is at stake: their country is in very, very bad shape. So, the huge ambition of this process is to save Syria...Wish us luck."

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