Back when Sen. Bob Menendez was just a chubby Cuban American kid in a tenement apartment in Union City, New Jersey, his mother instilled in him one, all-important lesson: “failure is not an option.” With that mantra in mind, Menendez embarked on a remarkable rise from poverty to power that culminated in the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill.
Half a century later, however, failure is the least of Menendez’s concerns. Charged Wednesday with 14 counts of corruption, bribery and fraud, federal prison is now a possibility for the 61-year-old. Menendez has denied the allegations. “I’m angry and ready to fight,” he proclaimed at a Newark Hotel, to chants of “Viva Bob.”
It’s a staggering fall from grace for Menendez, who has long touted his blue-collar childhood only to now be accused of coveting a lavish lifestyle of private jets, $1,000 per day five-star hotel suites in Paris, expensive golf clubs in West Palm Beach and $300 meals–nearly $1 million in alleged illicit gifts.
The indictment, for example, alleges a “personal trip to Paris to spend a weekend with a woman with whom he had a personal relationship.” In an e-mail to Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based eye doctor who was a longtime friend and political supporter of Menendez, the Democratic senator allegedly laid out his needs, either the Park Suite King or the Park King Deluxe at the Park Hyatt, with “king bed, work area with internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower,” plus a view. The total bill for three nights: $4,934.10.
That’s a much different portrait of Menendez than the one he paints of himself on his website. “Bob Menendez’s story is a quintessential American story,” claims his official Senate biography. Up until two years ago, that appeared to be true.
Born on New Year’s Day 1954, Menendez inherited his work ethic from his parents, both recent Cuban immigrants. His mother was a seamstress; his father a carpenter. “With the long hours, my parents got up early and were home late,” he wrote in his 2009 book, “Growing American Roots.” “So when classes were over, I was on my own. The order of the day was to go home, lock myself in, and do my homework until my parents arrived. I was a classic latchkey child.”
That latchkey kid was the first in his family to go to college. Inspired by the late President John F. Kennedy, Menendez ran for the Union City school board when he was only 20 years old. His opponent was a beloved local church minister, but the squeaky clean college freshman won anyway. When a reporter asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Menendez answered simply: a United States senator.
Menendez quickly rose from the school board to the mayor’s office, then to the New Jersey General Assembly, then to the state senate. The bespectacled politician repeated the trick on the national stage, reaching the U.S. Senate in January 2006 when New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) appointed him to fill his post. Menendez easily kept the seat in the November election later that year.
He was just the sixth Latino elected to the Senate, a fact he highlighted in his book. “From my earliest days in Union City, I was convinced that the role of a legislator or politician of Hispanic descent is to serve all the people and the greater good,” he wrote. “I will implicitly provide the sensitivity of one who rose up in the ranks.”
Colleagues have called Menendez a scrappy and passionate politician. “He’s very intense,” Frank J. Guarini, a former New Jersey congressman, told the New York Times in 2005. “He came from nothing and he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished because he’s been willing to get down into the arena and fight. I guess in Roman times they’d call these guys gladiators.”
In January 2013, Menendez’s career peaked when he became chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He was one of the highest ranking Hispanics in Congress.
But, Menendez’s all-American story was already beginning to be tarnished. That same month, he was accused, falsely as it would turn out, of cavorting with prostitutes during wild getaways to the Dominican Republic. Citing an unnamed Dominican government official, conservative website The Daily Caller claimed the senator and campaign donor Dr. Salomon Melgen had repeatedly flown to the Caribbean island for parties featuring “sex, hookers and drinking.”
Menendez denied the accusations, which a spokeswoman called a “smear campaign” intended to ruin his reputation. He went so far as to cite Martin Luther King Jr. during a 2013 event celebrating Black History Month. “Dr. King said that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’” Menendez announced at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton. “In the end, I believe that justice will overcome the forces of darkness.”
In fact, Menendez was vindicated a month later when Dominican police revealed that three women had been paid to falsely implicate the senator.
But the “forces of darkness,” in his view, were unrelenting. Someone, unspecified, was out to get him, he said. Prosecutors at the “Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me,” his statement said Wednesday, “But I will not be silenced. I’m confident – at the end of the day – I will be vindicated and they will be exposed.
“I began my political career – 40 years ago – fighting corruption in city government. I publicly complained about illegal financial dealings in my city until the FBI investigated and the U.S. Attorney filed corruption charges against the mayor and others. I was called to testify for the prosecution. I received death threats. I wore a bulletproof vest for a month. That’s how I began my career in public service. And this is not how my career is going to end.”
But Menendez’s ties to Melgen would haunt him nonetheless. The FBI raided the Dominican eye doctor’s Florida home in January 2013 as part of an inquiry into Medicare fraud. Melgen and Menendez had become close friends in 1990s, with the senator allegedly catching at least 19 rides to the Caribbean island on the doctor’s private jet starting in 2010 . It wasn’t until 2013, just before Melgen’s house was raided, that Menendez reimbursed his friend $58,500 from his personal accounts.
It is those same ties to Melgen that are at the core of the corruption charges filed Wednesday. Prosecutors accused Menendez of using his office to benefit Melgen’s businesses in exchange for gifts, vacations and $750,000 in campaign donations. The senator allegedly tried to help his friend with a dispute with federal regulators over Medicare charges, and also assisted Melgen in landing a lucrative port-security contract in the Dominican Republic. Melgen was also charged with 13 counts of bribery and graft on Wednesday.
The first-generation American and self-proclaimed hard-worker had apparently developed a taste for first-class living. Melgen allegedly treated Menendez to “use of a Caribbean villa, access to an exclusive Dominican resort, a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris, expensive meals, golf outings, and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund,” all in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.
Menendez, still the no-quit kid from hardscrabble Union City, has once again denied the charges.
For the first time, however, failure seems like an option for the senator. His office has already announced that he will temporarily step aside from his prestigious post as the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If convicted, he likely would be forced to resign from the Senate he fought so hard to join.
“I am not going anywhere,” he said on Wednesday.