Seung Min Kim, Politico, May 10, 2015
Just days before Robert Menendez was hit with federal corruption charges, Bill Richardson reached out to his longtime friend with a simple question: How can I help?
Details of the Justice Department’s case against Menendez–that he had improperly used his Senate office to aid a wealthy donor–had been leaking out for weeks. So Richardson, who’s known Menendez since their days together as back-bench Latino members of the House, pledged over breakfast in the Senate Dining Room that he would defend the senator.
“I told him I wanted to stand behind him,” the former New Mexico governor and Energy secretary said in a recent interview. “I stand behind Bob Menendez’s integrity, his word, his values.” Since then, Richardson said he has donated $5,000 to Menendez’s legal defense fund and plans to raise more to aid his friend.
Richardson’s unwavering allegiance mirrors how the larger Latino community has rallied behind Menendez–and remained by his side in the weeks since the indictment–as he faces 14 federal corruption charges spanning bribery accusations to making false statements. As he fights to keep alive a four-decade political career, Menendez is relying on support from Latino politicians, advocacy groups and voters to bolster his public image, raise money and give counsel behind the scenes.
The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce talked with New Jersey’s other Democratic senator, Cory Booker, about efforts to show public support for Menendez, according to officials at the group. Menendez has been asked to be the grand marshal at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, Cuban Day Parade later this month, and he’s scheduled to be honored as the distinguished Cuban-American of the year at another Cuban Day Parade in North Bergen, New Jersey.
About two weeks after Menendez was indicted, La Casa de Don Pedro–a community development and social services organization based in Newark–bestowed the group’s annual award on Menendez to honor him for his work on immigration reform. On Thursday, Menendez rushed for the train home to New Jersey as one of two dozen honorees by the newspaper El Cambio, a Spanish-language publication that covers northern New Jersey, for work on behalf of the Latino community.
“When he was the only … Hispanic senator, he would get issues from California to Texas that had very little to do with New Jersey. And he would repeatedly step up for the Latino community,” said Javier Palomarez, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Because of that record, we are stepping up and saying, ‘Listen. We can talk about the Bob Menendez we know.’”
If Menendez were to be found guilty, it would lead to the loss of the only Latino Democrat currently serving in the Senate–and so the broader Hispanic community is rallying behind Menendez not just because of their histories with the senator, but to prevent losing their core of influence in the chamber.
The accusations laid out by federal prosecutors in a 68-page indictment are serious: Menendez allegedly took nearly $1 million worth of gifts and contributions from a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist, Salomon Melgen, and then used the resources of his Senate office to bolster the eye doctor’s business interests, while supporting visa applications for three of Melgen’s girlfriends. Melgen was also charged in the Menendez indictment.
Menendez has pleaded not guilty and defiantly proclaimed he will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Melgen is facing 76 additional federal charges, separate from the Menendez case, in Florida, where he is accused of engaging in an elaborate Medicare scheme that included falsely diagnosing patients for eye conditions and then profiting off them.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a longtime Menendez friend, waited for hours on April 1 until the indictment was made public. Once he saw the charges were official, Gutiérrez dialed Menendez on his iPhone and left him a voicemail: “I want you to know that when you pick up tomorrow’s clips, my statement should be in there, and I’m with you.” In a recent interview, Gutiérrez said he is also willing to help beef up Menendez’s legal defense fund, although the Illinois Democrat acknowledges he’s not a prolific fundraiser.