Dominican Republic port contract scrutinized, along with senator, eye doctor’s relationship


SANTO DOMINGO — When the U.S. Embassy set out to press the Dominican government over a long-stalled contract to provide port security, American officials took on some tough opponents. The deal had languished for more than a decade amid stiff resistance from the American Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of American and local businessmen in the Dominican Republic, and the country’s customs authorities.

Ambassador Raul Yzaguirre’s team pushed the government to enforce the contract — which calls for operating X-ray scanners to screen cargo at the country’s ports — despite objections over its merits and its price tag.

The port deal has come under heightened scrutiny in the United States in recent weeks because of its chief investor, a wealthy Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen who stood to gain a windfall if the contract was enforced, and his close friend Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Menendez, whose relationship with Melgen is the subject of a Senate ethics inquiry, was a major beneficiary of the doctor’s generosity, repeatedly flying on his private plane to the Dominican Republic, staying as a guest at his seaside mansion and receiving large campaign contributions. Melgen donated $700,000 to Menendez and other Senate Democrats last year. The senator was also the most powerful champion of the port deal, publicly urging U.S. officials to pressure Dominican authorities to enforce the contract.

Menendez pointed to the port security deal at Yzaguirre’s confirmation hearing to become ambassador, an aide to the senator said, asking him to put a priority on security efforts aimed at countering drug trafficking through the Dominican Republic. Melgen, too, sought Yzaguirre’s help in enforcing the contract.

Yzaguirre, for his part, received help from both men in becoming ambassador. They had provided a crucial boost to his nomination when it ran into trouble.

The details of efforts by Yzaguirre and embassy staff on behalf of the port security contract remain sketchy. But the ambassador spoke approvingly of stepping up drug interdiction measures when Dominican reporters specifically asked him about the port deal. And embassy officials told the American Chamber of Commerce that they were seeking a resolution of the contract favorable to an American investor, according to William Malamud, the chamber’s executive vice president.

Though it was unusual for a U.S. Embassy to cross swords with the local American chamber, embassy officials said they were doing what U.S. diplomats around the world do when American investors get ensnared in legal or bureaucratic problems.

But this was no routine case because of the relationship among the three men: the senator, the eye doctor and the envoy.

When Yzaguirre’s nomination in 2009 to become ambassador to the Dominican Republic was held up by Republicans in Congress over other disputes with the State Department, Melgen and Menendez came to his aid. At the time, Menendez chaired the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that handled Caribbean affairs. With the nomination stalled, Melgen contacted Menendez to see what the senator could do to move it along, according to Melgen’s lawyer.

Source : washingtonpost[dot]com

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