About every 10 years, like clockwork, news articles pop up reminding New Jerseyans about that time in the early 1980s when Bob Menendez donned a bulletproof vest to testify against his former mentor at a federal corruption trial.
The story, when told by Menendez’s allies, is intended to portray the senator as a hardscrabble Hudson County politician who did what’s right in the face of the powerful Democratic machine — the same machine that nurtured him and launched his career.
It’s come up again and again because, well, Menendez has found himself the subject of similar investigations again and again — about once every decade. It happened in the 2000s, the 2010s, and it’s happening now.
This time, federal prosecutors are examining both the senator and his wife, looking into any connections to a company that secured an exclusive contract to certify meat exports to Egypt despite inexperience in the field. Several New Jersey politicians have reportedly received subpoenas for correspondence between Menendez, the owner of the New Jersey-based company and a powerful waterfront developer who owns its offices.
What might seem like a ground-shaking moment for most politicians is nothing new for Menendez. Because of that, few in New Jersey politics are willing to write him off, even as his reelection approaches in 2024.
“He’s the ultimate survivor in politics,” said Hudson County Republican Chair Jose Arango, who’s known Menendez for decades.
Menendez, 69, who has not been charged, stands apart from his colleagues for the frequency with which he’s been in authorities’ crosshairs — something he previously blamed on prosecutors who “cannot understand, or even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County can grow up to be a United States senator and be honest.”
The New Jersey political world is watching warily as investigators ask questions and seek documents without saying what, exactly, they suspect the senator of doing wrong.
Most of the Democratic Party stuck with Menendez through his last ordeal — federal charges for an alleged bribery scheme that ended in a hung jury. The latest investigation into Menendez feels different to many insiders. It’s one year ahead of Menendez’s reelection race, and New Jersey Democrats don’t want to risk what should be a safe seat. There’s a backlog of ambitious North Jersey Democrats who wouldn’t take much convincing to run. And there’s pent up frustration that New Jersey’s senior senator could, for the third decade in a row, put himself in this position.
But Menendez, who’s known to hold political grudges, has said he’s running for reelection in 2024. And absent an indictment, Democrats don’t appear likely to ask him to stand down. That’s partly because of the senator’s strong influence in his home state. But it’s also because, after his prior brushes with the feds, they’re reluctant to be the first to start, as Menendez put it following his failed corruption trial, “digging my political grave.”
One Democratic Menendez challenger, Roselle Park Mayor Joe Signorello III, who heavily criticized the senator for once again being under investigation, has already dropped out to run for a House seat instead. A new longshot challenger, Kyle Jasey, the son of a state lawmaker, recently announced his campaign.
“I believe that our current representative’s multiple scandals make him unfit to serve, and I will do everything in my power to give the people of NJ an alternative who they can believe in,” Jasey wrote on his campaign website.
Menendez has acknowledged the investigation, but one of his top advisers said last year the senator did not know its scope. He’s set up a legal defense fund in the meantime.
Jennifer Morrill, a spokesperson for Menendez, said the senator “is not distracted by politically-motivated smear campaigns” but instead focused on his work, such as legislation to lower prescription drug prices, expanding veterans’ health care and making housing more affordable. She noted he has nearly $8 million for his reelection.
“This is a clear sign that people know the senator is an effective leader who is getting things done on their behalf and that he fights for the people of New Jersey.”
Menendez’s storybook rise
Menendez grew up the son of Cuban immigrants in Union City, a dense, heavily-Hispanic city of 65,000 in the shadow of Manhattan, in Hudson County. It’s an urban tapestry of political fiefdoms where the line between normal transactional politics and bribery has been blurred for well over a century.
Born to a carpenter father and seamstress mother, Menendez began climbing the political ranks early, joining a ticket for the Union City school board in 1974 with the backing of Mayor William Musto. Four years later, Menendez took on the politically appointed position of board secretary.
In that role, Menendez soon clashed with the board’s president over payments to contractors and, eventually, testified against Musto, his former mentor, who with six associates was convicted of receiving hundreds of thousands in kickbacks for school construction projects. Menendez that year challenged Musto for the mayorship, but lost the election, which came the day after Musto was sentenced to seven years in prison.
But Menendez, his political career briefly derailed, soon began advancing. In 1986, he was elected Union City mayor and a year later to the state Assembly, following a long New Jersey tradition of dual elected office-holding that would be mostly banned 20 years later.
Menendez was elected to the state Senate in 1991 and in 1992 to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2006, after Democrat Jon Corzine vacated his Senate seat to become governor, he appointed Menendez as his successor.
Menendez’s run-ins with the feds
Later that year, two months before his first election to a full term, Menendez faced his first federal investigation, spearheaded by then-New Jersey U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, a Republican. Christie’s office began subpoenaing rental records between Menendez and a nonprofit, North Hudson Community Action Corp, that over a nine-year period paid the senator about $300,000 in rent. Menendez, as a House member, had helped the nonprofit secure federal grants.
Menendez’s Republican challenger, Tom Kean Jr., seized on the news of the subpoenas, focusing much of his campaign around it. Menendez insisted the arrangement was above-board and decried the timing, so close to the election — a complaint given some credibility in Democratic circles by Christie’s well-known political ambitions. Amid a Democratic wave fueled by backlash to the war in Iraq, Menendez beat Kean by 9 points.
In the end, nothing came of the investigation. In the Senate, Menendez became known as a workhorse, a vocal critic of Cuba and a strong ally of Israel. In 2013, he became chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations — a powerful role in which he often clashed with the administration of fellow Democrat Barack Obama on its Cuban rapprochement policies and the Iran nuclear deal.
Just a year before Menendez’s 2012 campaign, federal prosecutors sent him a letter informing him the 2006 investigation was closed. That allowed the senator to coast to reelection in his heavily-Democratic state, but not before yet another scandal emerged.
In the final days of his 2012 reelection, posts on the conservative website Daily Caller leveled salacious allegations that Menendez hired prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. Those allegations were later largely discredited, with two of the women recanting and saying they had been paid to make the claims. And they came too late in the campaign to sway voters, allowing Menendez to easily win reelection.
But the allegations shed light on Menendez’s relationship with a wealthy Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen. Soon, federal investigators were looking into allegations that Menendez used his foreign policy leverage to block the U.S. donation of security screening equipment to the Dominican Republic in order to benefit a company owned by Melgen, and that he interceded on Melgen’s behalf with federal health officials over a multi-million dollar Medicare billing dispute.
Federal agents raided Melgen’s Florida home in 2013, and he was charged, convicted in 2017 and sent to prison the next year for a vast Medicare fraud scheme. Former President Donald Trump commuted his 17-year sentence just before leaving office in 2021.
In 2015, federal prosecutors indicted Menendez and Melgen together in a separate bribery scheme, alleging Menendez repeatedly interceded on Melgen’s behalf with federal officials in exchange for lavish vacations at Melgen’s Dominican villa, flights on board the doctor’s private jets and campaign donations.
Menendez, who retained the support of New Jersey Democrats throughout the ordeal, went to trial in 2017. His attorneys didn’t deny the senator did favors for Melgen, but characterized them as a product of a close friendship instead of bribes. The defense worked, leading to a hung jury in which the vast majority favored acquittal.
Prosecutors briefly intended to retry the case, but soon gave up. Menendez, however, was later admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee regarding his conduct with Melgen.
While the prosecution was not successful, it appeared to take a political toll on Menendez. In the 2018 election, a virtually unknown primary challenger with few resources, Lisa McCormick, got 38 percent of the vote against him in the Democratic primary — a clear sign of protest and unease with the senator from the party’s bases.
In the general election, he faced former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin, who poured tens of millions of his own money into a race that focused heavily on Menendez’s ethical woes. But midterm backlash to the Trump administration overshadowed the senator’s problems, and Menendez won by 11 points.
Now, Menendez faces yet another investigation, led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York. Investigators have stayed quiet on the probe, but occasional news reports citing anonymous sources indicate that prosecutors are focusing on how a New Jersey-based company, IS EG Halal, got an exclusive contract to certify meat for the Egyptian government.
Prosecutors have also subpoenaed documents from New Jersey state Sen. Nicholas Sacco related to correspondence with Fred Daibes, a real estate developer who had long been the de facto political boss of Edgewater — a small, densely-packed town across the Hudson River from New York City. Daibes pleaded guilty to federal banking crimes last year, but his sentencing has repeatedly been delayed.
Investigators are, according to NBC and the New York Times, looking into whether Menendez and his wife, Nadine Arslanian, received gifts like a luxury car and Washington apartment from people linked to IS EG Halal. The New York Times reported this month that in 2019, foreclosure proceedings had begun against Arslanian’s home. She then started a consulting business, the paperwork for which was filed by a close Menendez friend, and soon repaid enough of the debt to dismiss the foreclosure, according to the newspaper.
A Menendez financial disclosure from 2022 that was amended for 2020 — the addition of gold bullion worth as much as $250,000 belonging to Arslanian, which she subsequently sold — has also factored into news stories suggesting Arslanian is a focus of investigators, though it’s unclear whether it’s related to the investigation.
Menendez’s corruption trial and double-digit reelection in 2018 only strengthened his status in New Jersey political circles, despite Democratic primary voter unease. When U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) retired, Menendez’s son, Rob Menendez, faced virtually no opposition to succeed him in the safely-Democratic district.
“He’s a trailblazer to us. He’s an icon. He’s been there for such a long, long time,” said Hudson County Commissioner Bill O’Dea, a Democrat.
Menendez sympathizers, like O’Dea and even Arango, the Hudson County Republican chair, tend to read political motives into the senator’s prosecution. Both mentioned his foreign policy spats with the Obama administration as potential reasons for his prosecution.
“I think one of the other ulterior motives is there are a couple foreign policy issues that he seemingly stands up against his own party on,” said O’Dea, who has known Menendez for years and received the senator’s endorsement for office in Hudson County. “I never try to guess the motivations of law enforcement, but it certainly seems like they just try to really go after him for some reason, a lot more than a lot of other folks that I’ve known and dealt with in the world of politics.”
Even Hugin, Menendez’s 2018 challenger and the current New Jersey Republican state chair, demurred from criticizing the senator when asked about the investigation. “I don’t really have any particular insight anymore than anyone who reads the press. So I have no grounds to believe there’s anything substantial or substantiated against him or his wife,” Hugin said.
But there is plenty of hand-wringing in New Jersey Democratic circles about uncertainty surrounding the investigation, even if his critics tend to stay quiet given the temper Menendez demonstrated outside the Newark federal courthouse following his mistrial in 2017. (“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat,” he said, “I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”)
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli, who had expressed interest in running for Menendez’s seat if he was convicted, was one of the men Menendez referred to. Torricelli, who said he no longer harbors any political ambitions, was the only Democrat POLITICO reached who was willing to say anything that Menendez could possibly construe as disloyal.
“I’m still here,” Torricelli said. “He knows where I am if he wants me.”
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