Latino lawmakers are notably silent as Bob Menendez’s identity gets caught up in bribery charges

On the day the 2015 indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., became public, UnidosUS CEO Janet Murguía wasted no time defending him.

Hispanic Americans, she said in an op-ed on HuffPost, “have every reason to give the senator the benefit of the doubt,” because in his time in Congress he has been “our voice, our champion,” Murguía said then. (At the time, her organization went by the name National Council of La Raza.) Others tweeted support and hashtags of #IStandWithBob.

But Murguía and other Latinos in the Washington sphere have yet to come to Menendez’s defense since the allegations he accepted bribes were revealed Friday.

“The silence is deafening,” said a longtime Democratic operative, who, like other political aides and consultants who work with Latino lawmakers, spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to endanger their relationships with Menendez.

Several said the shocking allegations of accepting bribes and evidence of cash stuffed in clothing and gold bars stashed at his home included in Friday’s indictment make it much harder for Menendez’s Latino colleagues to openly defend him again.

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Menendez was indicted on federal corruption charges. According to the indictment, he and his wife, Nadine, accepted bribes in exchange for his influence on behalf of three New Jersey businessmen and the Egyptian government. Federal officials said some of the cash, gold and other items, including a luxury car, were found at Menendez’s home when they searched it in summer 2022.

Menendez and his wife have both denied wrongdoing. At a news conference Monday, Menendez said he firmly believed he would be exonerated and keep his Senate seat. “Prosecutors get it wrong sometimes,” he said. Menendez did not respond to a request for comment.

Menendez’s importance to advancing Latinos and their representation in American society was made starkly clear recently when the Senate confirmed Adriana Kugler to be a Federal Reserve governor. She is the first Latina to join the Fed Board in its 109-year history, and Menendez was key in fighting to get her nominated and confirmed.

He was critical to the quarter-century fight to establish a Latino museum as part of the Smithsonian museums. He has been an ardent advocate for immigrants and others in vulnerable communities, whom he speaks up for from the Senate floor with eloquence and passion. He called on President Joe Biden last week to use executive powers to open more legal pathways for people to come to the U.S.

Nonetheless, images issued by the Justice Department of bundles of money atop a jacket with the words “Congressional Hispanic Caucus” caused some to groan and left his colleagues “in a pickle,” a veteran Democratic strategist said. “How do you think the CHC feels about that?” the strategist said. “Your association with Congressional Hispanic Caucus is now front and center of this situation.”

“We have so many issues that are so pressing. We have nominations, some people who are waiting on their vote to get confirmed,” the strategist said. “There’s all kinds of collateral damage that is immeasurable.”

The caucus, all of whose members are Democrats, had not issued any comment by Tuesday and did not respond immediately to messages asking for comment.

The sadness and disbelief among Latinos who have seen Menendez’s work on behalf of Hispanics or how he has helped open doors for them are palpable, another Democratic strategist said.

“People don’t realize he’s like our Charles Xavier,” the strategist said, referring to the Marvel Comics X-Men character. “He’s a guy who has been around since the very beginning of modern Latino political identity. He’s a foundational figure.”

“Bob Menendez [understands] power and how to wield it but also is not someone afraid to throw his weight around on things he’s believed in. He did go to the mat and fight the fight, and it’s very sad,” the strategist said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., did not close ranks around Menendez. She called for his resignation Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

“Consistency matters,” she said. “It shouldn’t matter whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat. The details in this indictment are extremely serious. They involve the nature of not just his but all of our seats in Congress.”

Menendez blasted those “rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat.” That has offended some Latinos, who agree there are differences when it comes to the justice system but have a hard time dismissing his indictment as bias because of the compelling details in it.

“There is an odor of shame because he is using the Latino defense,” one of the strategists said. “He has in the past. During his last engagement with the feds, one of his statements was along the lines of ‘they can’t stand to see a Latino or Cuban from New Jersey make it.'”

There also was mixed response to his explanation at his news conference that he kept money from his savings account stashed at home “because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba.” Menendez was born in the U.S.; his parents immigrated from Cuba in the 1950s during the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, before Fidel Castro’s communist takeover.

Some question that defense given Menendez’s position as a senior government official and a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., an analyst for MSNBC, said it is true that many families keep their assets close, though he does not. Curbelo was not willing to condemn Menendez, maintaining he is innocent unless proven guilty.

“This is a bad situation. There’s no denying that. But at the end of the day, these are allegations, and the government will have to prove in court that specific laws were broken by him personally and have to show how they were broken. In the past they failed to do so,” Curbelo said, referring to the hung jury in the trial in Menendez’s 2015 indictment.

A Democratic congressional aide said, “A lot of people don’t buy it.”

On the other hand, some Latino supporters suggested a connection between the indictment and Menendez’s hard-line policy toward Cuba.

Mario Pentón, the host of a Spanish-language AM radio show and a journalist on AméricaTeVé, said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that Menendez has been a “retaining wall” against “those seeking a thaw” in relations with Cuba.

“It’s very curious that the two times that a thaw in relations with the Cuba regime has been attempted and the figure of @SenatorMenendez is in the way, these accusations come out,” he wrote in Spanish.

“The Castro dictatorship is celebrating,” he wrote.

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