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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Menéndez, defiant, says he will not resign

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks at a news conference in Union City, N.J., Sept. 25, 2023. The appearance, where he said he will not resign, was his first time speaking publicly since being charged with taking bribes in exchange for exerting political influence.

By Tracey Tully

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey returned earlier this week to the familiar territory of Hudson County, New Jersey, a Democratic bastion where he rose to political prominence, to publicly address the corruption charges that now threaten his career and his freedom.

Standing alone at a lectern, accused of bribery for the second time in a decade, he indicated that he had no intention of bowing to the chorus of voices calling for his resignation.

The allegations, he said, were framed by prosecutors to “be as salacious as possible.”

“I recognize that this will be the biggest fight yet,” Menendez, a Democrat, said as heavy rain beat against the windows of a community college not far from where he grew up in Union City, the child of Cuban refugees.

But he said he expected that once the judicial process concluded, “not only will I be exonerated, I will still be New Jersey’s senior senator.”

Speaking first in English and then in Spanish, Menendez, 69, reiterated much of the message he offered immediately after the three-count indictment was announced Friday. He urged patience “to allow all the facts to be presented.”

He was not joined by family members or any of his most stalwart political allies as he faced a bank of television cameras and a standing-room-only crowd of reporters. Behind him, against a wall, were roughly two dozen people he called “everyday people and constituents who know me.”

Menendez left without answering questions shouted by reporters about the gifts, including gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz, that prosecutors say he received as bribe payments.

He did, however, attempt to offer a justification for the $550,000 in cash investigators found during July 2022 searches of a safe deposit box and his home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, much of it stashed in clothing and closets or stuffed into envelopes. Some of the envelopes containing the cash had the fingerprints of a businessperson charged in the scheme; one envelope also had Menendez’s fingerprints, according to the indictment.

Menendez said it had been his habit to withdraw cash from his savings accounts to keep at home, a tendency he said was rooted in his parents’ experience in Communist Cuba.

“This may seem old-fashioned,” he said, adding, “I look forward to addressing other issues at trial.”

It was the first time he had appeared publicly since federal prosecutors in New York City unsealed a 39-page indictment that accused him and his wife, Nadine Menendez, of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for wielding his political influence to benefit the government of Egypt and business associates in New Jersey.

The indictment depicted a far-reaching web of political corruption involving aid and weapons sales to Egypt and efforts by Menendez to persuade state and federal prosecutors to go easy on his associates in three criminal cases.

Menendez and the others accused in the bribery conspiracy — his wife and three New Jersey businesspersons — are expected to appear today in federal court in New York to respond to the charges.

He stepped down Friday as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, as required by rules the Senate Democrats adopted to govern themselves.

Nadine Menendez, 56, who has been married to the senator for three years, did not attend the news conference.

One longtime friend, Joseph Panepinto, a New Jersey developer, said Menendez’s office called to ask him to attend the event. He said he wanted to be there to support his friend of 40 years.

“I see he has a problem,” Panepinto said. “I hope he’s innocent. If he’s proven guilty, he’ll pay the price.”

“What happened? I don’t know,” he added. “I have no idea. I’m wondering why he has so much cash in his house, but that’s his business.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a close ally of Menendez, called for the senator’s resignation hours after the charges were announced, unleashing a torrent of similar messages from Democratic leaders across the state.

In Washington, however, the reaction among Democrats has been more muted; by late Monday, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a close friend of Menendez’s, still had taken no public position on the charges outlined in the indictment.

At the White House, President Joe Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said that the decision about whether Menendez should step down was “going to be up to him and the Senate leadership.”

Rep. Andy Kim, a third-term Democrat from South Jersey, said Saturday that he would challenge Menendez in next year’s primary, and he wasted no time in establishing a campaign committee.

“New Jersey deserves better,” Kim said Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Menendez just had a press conference doubling down on his refusal to resign. Then we have to beat him in the primary election.”

The response from New Jersey Democrats was a marked departure from 2017, when most Democratic leaders stood solidly at Menendez’s side while he stood trial in federal court on charges that he had taken bribes from a wealthy doctor in exchange for political favors.

The jury could not reach a unanimous decision, and the Justice Department declined to retry Menendez after a judge dismissed the most serious charges.

At Monday’s news conference, Menendez alluded to his previous case. “Remember, prosecutors get it wrong sometimes,” he said. “Sadly, I know that.”

Still, Republicans said Menendez’s legal problems would only bolster their effort to win over voters in November, when lawmakers are running for reelection in the state Assembly and Senate.

“It’s a real problem for Democrats that he’s not going away quietly,” said Alexandra Wilkes, a spokesperson for the state Republican Party.

“If you’re the Democrats, this is not what you want to have be the top story on every single news station, every single night.”

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