Bullet-proof vests and charges of corruption: The life and career of Sen. Bob Menendez

WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Menendez wore a bullet-proof vest when, as a young lawyer, he testified against a pair of mob figures and city officials in a corruption case in New Jersey.

Now, Menendez himself once again stands accused of political corruption.

The influential New Jersey Democrat was indicted Friday by a federal grand jury in New York and charged with corruption for the second time in eight years. Menendez and his wife, Nadine Arslanian Menendez, are accused of accepting bribes, including cash, gold, mortgage payments and a Mercedes-Benz in a case that alleges the senator used his foreign affairs influence for personal gain.

Three New Jersey businessmen also were charged with showering the couple with expensive bribes in exchange for the senator’s dealings on their behalf.

Menendez called the allegations baseless and a smear campaign.

Read the full indictment: Menendez faces second round of corruption charges

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

Who is Bob Menendez?

Menendez has been a high-profile figure for much of his three-decade career in Washington. He made history in 2006 when he became only the second Cuban-American senator. He quickly rose to become one of the Senate’s most influential members and served as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, a position he relinquished after Friday’s indictment.

Menendez, 69, was born in New York City to parents who emigrated from Cuba to escape from the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista. The family moved to New Jersey, where he grew up in a tenement building in Union City. Menendez earned a degree from Rutgers Law School and was elected to the Union City Board of Education in 1974.

It was during his tenure on the school board that Menendez testified against mob figures and one of his mentors, Union City Mayor William Musto, who was convicted of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks for school construction projects. Fearing for his life, Menendez wore a bullet-proof vest during the trial. Four years later, Menendez was elected mayor, defeating Musto, thwarting his mentor’s attempt at a political comeback.

Menendez later served in the state legislature before winning a U.S. House seat in 1992. After Sen. Jon Corzine was elected governor, he appointed Menendez as his replacement in 2006. Menendez was elected to a full six-year term the following November and has twice been re-elected.

Menendez’s son, Rob Menendez, was elected last year to a New Jersey congressional seat. The senator’s daughter, Alicia Menendez, is a television commentator and hosts a weekend show on MSNBC.

Menendez is up for re-election in 2024.

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A critic of Cuba, a defender of Ukraine

In the Senate, Menendez developed a reputation for being hawkish on foreign policy and, in 2013, became the first Latino to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He championed human rights for Cubans and has been an outspoken critic of Cuba’s communist regime. He was also a fierce critic of Iran and argued Tehran should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. Even so, he opposed a deal negotiated by the Obama administration that called for Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Menendez argued the agreement would fail to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Menendez also has been a strong supporter of immigration reform and has been a key player in Democrats’ efforts to pass comprehensive immigration legislation. He was one of the original “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators that pushed immigration reform through the Senate only to see it die in the Republican-controlled House.

In addition, Menendez has been a fierce advocate for Ukraine in its war with Russia and has pushed Congress to give Ukraine the resources it needs to fight back.

Lavish gifts and charges of corruption

Friday’s indictment is not the first time Menendez has been accused of corruption.

In 2015, he was indicted in New Jersey on charges that he used his political influence to help a Florida eye doctor who lavished him with gifts and campaign contributions. Menendez was accused of pressuring government officials to resolve a Medicare billing dispute in favor of a friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, securing visas for the doctor’s girlfriends and helping protect a contract the doctor had to provide port-screening equipment to the Dominican Republic.

Menendez said he was innocent, and prosecutors dropped the case after a jury deadlocked in November 2017 on some charges and a judge dismissed some others.

Menendez stepped down as top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after his first indictment, but resumed the position after the charges were dropped.

Menendez’s ties to a pair of Ecuadorean bankers also raised eyebrows in 2014. Menendez denied he had improperly helped the bankers, two brothers living in Florida and convicted in absentia for embezzling millions from an Ecuadorian bank. The bankers’ families donated thousands of dollars to a dozen members of Congress, including Menendez, whose office sent letters to the Department of Homeland Security to help the brothers and other family members with immigration problems.

A New York television station reported the FBI was investigating Menendez’s actions on behalf of the family. Menendez said he had done nothing wrong and was never charged in the case.

Dig deeper: How common are indictments in the Senate? Here's a look at senators who faced charges

Contributing: The Associated Press

Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @mcollinsNEWS.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez once again accused of corruption