- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Immigrant rights advocates rallied to the defense of Sen. Robert Menendez after his indictment on bribery charges Wednesday, saying he’s been a trailblazer for Hispanics in Congress and hoping he clears his name and can return to the trenches of the immigration fight.

Mr. Menendez, the only Hispanic Democrat in the Senate, has made his mark in international affairs, where he was his party’s point man on the Foreign Relations Committee until temporarily stepping aside Wednesday evening. He also was a key author of the 2013 Senate immigration bill, takes his role as defender of the Latino community very seriously and is a major part of Democrats’ outreach to Spanish-speaking voters.

Indeed, the three-term senator issues his press releases with both Spanish and English versions of his comments — and usually puts the Spanish version above the English.

His interest in immigration issues also ended up being one of the actions cited in the indictment handed up against him, which cited his pressure on the State Department to approve visas for several “foreign girlfriends” of Salomon Melgen, the wealthy friend whom prosecutors say paid Mr. Menendez in gifts and campaign contributions.

In one case, staffers for Mr. Menendez even said the visa for a Dominican model identified only as “Girlfriend 2” was “ONLY DUE to the fact that RM intervened.” The State Department had denied the visa, but Mr. Menendez instructed his staff to “call ambassador asap,” and in less than a month their visa had been approved.

The State Department said Wednesday it didn’t have a response to questions about the visas.

Mr. Menendez said the indictment twisted his relationship with Dr. Melgen from a friendship into a corrupt bargain.

“This is not how my career is going to end,” he vowed at a press conference Wednesday evening in remarks he delivered in English and then Spanish. “I have always conducted myself in accordance with the law. I have always stood up for what I believe is right. I fight for issues I believe in.”

The case could have broad political implications, with the indictment mentioning Mr. Menendez’s efforts to lobby fellow senators on Dr. Melgen’s behalf. And the doctor and his wife, Flor, have been generous donors to Democratic causes, including to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential and senatorial campaigns.

Immigrant rights activists rallied around the senator, saying they hope he clears his name and returns as champion of their issue.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group, said Mr. Menendez is “not only the senior senator for New Jersey; he’s also the senior senator for Latinos in America.”

“I know him well and love him dearly,” Mr. Sharry said. “He has courageously stood up for those marginalized by political systems and dehumanized by a nasty streak of nativism in American society.”

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who leads immigration reform efforts in the House, said Mr. Menendez has “never given me any reason to question his integrity, his dedication to honest public service or his commitment to the American people.”

Both Mr. Sharry and Mr. Gutierrz said they hoped the charges are resolved quickly.

Mr. Menendez served seven terms in the House, rising to become House Democratic Caucus chairman before being appointed to the Senate seat left open when Jon Corzine won election as governor of New Jersey. Mr. Menendez has won election twice since then, and was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 through early this year, when the GOP took control of the Senate and he became the ranking Democrat.

The senator has been a chief critic of President Obama’s policies in Cuba, calling the new overtures of diplomatic relations a mistake. Mr. Menendez has also helped lead Democratic opposition to the outlines of the deal Mr. Obama is trying to strike with Iran over that country’s nuclear program, arguing that Congress should have a say in whether to lift sanctions.

Mr. Menendez was part of the Gang of Eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — who wrote the 2013 immigration bill, and has repeatedly pushed back against GOP leaders’ efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants through faster deportations.

The senator has also been a staunch defender of President Obama’s executive actions to create a deportation amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.

The indictment handed up Wednesday cited Mr. Menendez’s involvement in pressuring U.S. Customs and Border Protection not to donate cargo screening equipment to the Dominican Republic. Prosecutors said such a donation could have interfered with Dr. Melgen’s financial interest in a company that had an exclusive contract to provide cargo screening at Dominican ports.

Other accusations in the indictment include Mr. Menendez personally lobbying the Health and Human Services secretary over a Medicare billing dispute Dr. Melgen was having with her department. Prosecutors said that lobbying was tied to hundreds of thousands of dollars Dr. Melgen donated to campaign groups supporting Mr. Menendez’s reelection.

And the indictment goes into detail about Mr. Menendez’s advocacy at the State Department for three of Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends. According to the document, the doctor was dating all of them in 2007 and 2008. One was a Brazilian actress, model and lawyer, one was the Dominican model, and a third was a Ukrainian actress and model.

The indictment says Mr. Menendez pressured the State Department to grant a student visa to the Brazilian woman and tourist visas to the Ukrainian, the Dominican and the Dominican’s sister.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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