Philadelphia – In Politics, there is murky and indistinct area which separates camaraderie and friendship from corrupt and conflict of interest cronyism.
New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who began his political career 30 years ago testifying against corruption in his hometown of Union city, appears to have stepped into this cloudy realm. The son of Cuban refugees and first Latino elected to the U.S. Senate, he is now confronting charges over whether he breached an ethical boundary.
Last Thursday, the Justice Department brought a 14-count indictment against the longest serving Latino in the Senate, alleging that Sen. Menendez used his position to promote the interests of a longtime friend and wealthy eye surgeon in exchange for gifts, luxury trips and up to $750,000 in campaign contributions.
The indictment specifically charges that Sen. Menendez sought to change the Medicare reimbursement policy of the Obama administration in a manner that would benefit Dr. Salomon Melgen. In addition, he is accused of promoting a port security deal in the Dominican Republic that would have been beneficial to Dr. Melgen.
Many of New Jersey’s Latino leaders, businessmen and women and voters alike cautioned against a rush to judgment, noting that Sen. Menendez has a solid reputation and deserves a fair trial.
“It could be true, what he is saying about his friendship. But you have to know the individuals,” Pierre Bonilla, a Trenton,NJ businessman told El Hispano. “I have friends like that, who would do (favors) for me.”
“But it’s very hard to say,” added Bonilla. “In politics they like to frame things in a way. That’s why I don’t get into politics.”
For both Betsy Ibarrondo and Alberta McClain, “Some of the evidence makes him look guilty. But if he feels he was doing something for a friend, then Menendez has got some explaining to do.”
“I think he was only helping a friend,” said Rena Rischer, a municipal secretary who said she voted for Sen. Menendez.
“If I had a friend like that, I’d help them out. As long as he is doing his job, he should stay and fight” the charges.
New Jersey assemblyman Angel Fuentes was similarly supportive, citing an attorney’s view: “Leaks and innuendos do not equate to guilt and the Senator deserves a fair and just trial, not a political witch hunt. We owe someone who has fought so hard for us these basic American rights.”
Another voice of support for the embattled New Jersey Senator, U.S. Rep. Albio Sires said of Sen. Menendez, “He’s never been an elitist. He’s always working for the common person, for the people from Main Street.”
“All Americans, not just Senator Menendez, are entitled to a presumption of innocence,” added Mr. Sires. “These charges are just an accusation. My friend, Bob Mendez is not going anywhere.”
A similarly staunch defense came from Javier Palomarez, Chairman of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who said, “His name, his reach, his reputation goes far beyond New Jersey, New York the northeast quadrant.”
A widely respected New Jersey and Philadelphia political activist voicing support, Efrain Feliciano posted a brief note: “Hang in there Bob.”
In a released statement, the Mayor of Jersey city, Steve Fulop asserted, “Anyone who makes an assumption here is underestimating Senator Menendez. The Senator has been a voice on international issues that has kept New Jersey safe and has been an advocate for issues that impact working families in New Jersey every single day.
From New Jersey’s Democratic Party Chairman, John Currie, came arguably the most robust support: “There is no one in Congress more committed to fixing our broken immigration system and addressing other important issues facing our nation.”
“The Senator has told me personally that none of his actions were inappropriate or unlawful, and I truly believe him,” said Mr. Currie in a statement. “During this difficult time for him and his family, I will continue to proudly stand with my fiend Bob Menendez (and) I look forward to the day when these charges are fully adjudicated, and we can put all these allegation behind us.”