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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Menéndez held a tropical fundraiser. Donors were scarce. So was he.

Empty tables at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach Hotel in Dorado, on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. An event in Puerto Rico to benefit Sen. Robert Menéndez’s political action committee suffered numerous cancellations after the senator’s indictment. (Luis Ferré-Sadurní/The New York Times)

By Luis Ferré-Sadurní

At Puerto Rico’s most exclusive beachfront resort, where shoulder season rooms go for $1,500 a night, deep-pocketed donors have reliably lined up to pay tribute to Sen. Bob Menéndez in the form of a $5,000 check to his political action committee.

But this year’s retreat imploded, as donors quickly distanced themselves from Menéndez after he was indicted on federal bribery charges, turning the once powerful Democrat from New Jersey into a pariah at his own fundraiser this past weekend.

The opening reception on Friday evening was pared down to three small tables overlooking the beach. There were still open seats: Only about a dozen people showed up to the subdued affair and roughly half of them were the senator’s aides. Trays of sushi and shrimp cocktail were left uneaten.

The shunned senator never showed, absent at his own ill-timed and ill-fated fundraiser.

More than half of the 50-or-so donors and their guests canceled attendance after the senator was charged three weeks ago. A defiant Menéndez refused to cancel the retreat despite the defections. Then, as he landed in San Juan last Thursday, he was buffeted with more untimely news: Prosecutors filed additional charges and asked a judge to seize his home.

The fundraiser would normally have given donors a prime opportunity to get access to the senator and his team, lobbying for various causes in a relaxed setting. The retreat was supposed to include a round of golf with Menéndez and a poolside lunch with his chief of staff.

But the awkward prospect of mingling with a scandal-ridden senator caused many of the remaining donors to pull out just a day before the retreat. In the end, only a handful of guests and their partners made the trip to Puerto Rico, but even some who stayed at the resort did not turn up to the scheduled receptions.

Neither did Menéndez.

The annual retreat’s collapse was a stark reflection of the senator’s sudden isolation and diminished stature, abandoned by droves of one-time allies as he fights for political survival. It also underscored the uphill climb he could face to raise money to pay for an expected reelection campaign and for lawyers to fight corruption accusations he has vehemently denied.

About 1,500 miles away in New Jersey, an air of inevitability of Menéndez’s imminent political demise has settled in, after the senator was accused of using his elected office to benefit the Egyptian government and three businesspeople in return for bribes that included wads of cash, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and gold bullion bars.

Donors said they turned down requests from Menéndez’s finance director to contribute to his defense fund. A 41-year-old New Jersey member of Congress, Andy Kim, announced he would challenge the senator in a Democratic primary. And other potential candidates began to work back channels as they assessed whether to make a run for Menéndez’s seat, including the wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, Tammy Murphy, who has never held elective office.

The political pall surrounding the senator extended to Puerto Rico, where he and his wife kept a low profile at the hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach, a high-end resort about a 30-minute drive west of San Juan that is lined with 2.5 miles of beach and dotted with golf courses and massive villas.

The senator skipped both the welcome and farewell receptions. It is unclear if he played golf with donors as he was scheduled to do so on Saturday morning; an employee at the golf course said Menéndez did not appear to have a tee time. But he did emerge from hiding to have a solitary dinner with his wife, Nadine Menéndez, who has also been charged in the bribery scandal.

In many ways, the 1,900-acre natural reserve is an ideal hideaway for a politician looking to escape controversy or to mingle, away from prying eyes: It is only open to residents, local members and guests willing to pay as much as $4,500-a-night for an oceanside suite during hurricane season.

For the past few years, it has served as the go-to venue for Menéndez to host scores of lobbyists from blue-chip corporations and to raise money for New Millennium PAC, which Menéndez, known as a prolific fundraiser, has long used to steer generous contributions to other lawmakers and candidates to increase his clout among colleagues on Capitol Hill.

Samantha Maltzman, a spokesperson for the New Millennium PAC, denied that the retreat had been a failure and did not say how much was raised.

The PAC had just over $600,000 in the bank at the end of June, while his campaign account, which he could also tap to finance his legal fees, has roughly $8.6 million, according to the most recent filings.

Among the few supporters who did attend the retreat this year was Michael Hutton, a lobbyist who served as Menéndez’s chief of staff in the House of Representatives in the 1990s and early 2000s. Hutton, who runs his own lobbying firm on K Street, has appeared to keep close ties to Menéndez since he switched to the private sector.

After Menéndez was first sworn in to the Senate in 2007, Hutton reportedly threw him a private party in Washington, D.C., that was funded by corporate donors. And he has made at least $70,000 in contributions to Menéndez’s campaigns and PAC over two decades.

Hutton did not reply to a request for comment on Monday.

Also present at the receptions was Javier Ortiz, a partner at an investment firm, Falcon Cyber Investments, who has donated mostly to Republican politicians, including former President Donald Trump, according to filings. He has also given $37,000 since 2017 to Menéndez’s campaign and PAC.

Reached for comment after the retreat, Ortiz would not say if he had met with Menéndez and pointed to the senator’s presumption of innocence under the U.S. legal system.

“I’m an American that supports Americans,” he said repeatedly during a brief phone interview when asked about his attendance.

After so many donors dropped out this year, the retreat was relegated to more of a weekend getaway for Menéndez and his staffers.

On Saturday evening, the senator’s chief of staff, his press aides and a hired fundraiser gathered with a handful of guests for the retreat’s farewell reception and mingled by the beach over plantain chips and seafood appetizers.

Down the beach, Menéndez donned dark pants and a blue tucked-in polo shirt as he strode into the hotel’s pricey restaurant with his wife. They appeared to sit alone for a quick dinner, then disappeared again.

Under the terms of their indictment, Bob Menéndez may continue to travel for official business; his wife, who surrendered her passport, is required to obtain permission from a federal judge or prosecutors if she wants to travel outside of New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., or Florida.

The couple’s stealth presence in Puerto Rico was noted by hotel guests, with one discussing the sighting with a friend at the hotel bar, where guests sipped $25 cocktails over live bossa nova music.

“It seems like the best way to get out of the spotlight for bribery is to go to the most expensive resort in America,” the guest quipped.

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