At Hispanic Chamber business event, Menendez indictment is met with disappointment, disgust

Yes, innocent until proven guilty — but disbelief this is happening again

Most of the comments Friday at the Diversity Expo sponsored by the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey regarding the indictment of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez started with the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” — but almost all then quickly took a turn toward “disappointing” and “disgraceful.”

Word that Menendez and his wife, Nadine Arslanian, had been charged with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from 2018-22 came out during a panel discussion on the challenges Hispanics face in higher education and the business world.

When the panel was done, many felt Menendez’s indictment would do damage to the Hispanic community as a whole.

This, of course, is the second time Menendez has been indicted. An indictment on corruption charges in 2015 ended in a mistrial in 2018 — after a jury failed to reach a verdict on all counts. The judge acquitted him on some charges.

The stain of that event came through Friday.

Everyone quoted was only willing to do so without attribution due to the sensitivity of the moment in the community.

“It hurts the community when this comes out,” one person said. “He’s innocent until proven guilty, but this is the Southern District of New York making the charge, not the National Enquirer.”

Some compared it to the convictions of other prominent Hispanic politicians.

“These are people that we should be looking up to in our community — saying, ‘I want to be like them someday,’” one person said. “When this happens, we wonder if we aren’t already better than them now.”

As a U.S. senator and the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez not only is one of the most influential Hispanics in the country — but one of the most powerful overall.

“Why would you risk that position?’” one person asked.

Another said, if he wanted money, there are plenty of legal ways to do it.

“Can you imagine how much he could pull in, in the private sector,” someone said.

Menendez, in a statement, strongly professed his innocence — and indicated being a Latino was one of the reasons for the actions against him.

“Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. senator and serve with honor and distinction,” he said. “Even worse, they see me as an obstacle in the way of their broader political goals.

“I have been falsely accused before because I refused to back down to the powers that be, and the people of New Jersey were able to see through the smoke and mirrors and recognize I was innocent. I have worked every day to repay their trust by fighting to create jobs, strengthen public safety, update infrastructure and reduce costs for New Jersey families. I have also stood steadfast against dictators around the globe — whether they be in Iran, Cuba, Turkey or elsewhere — fighting against the forces of appeasement and standing with those who stand for freedom and democracy.  I remain focused on continuing this important work and will not be distracted by baseless allegations.”

Again, those at the event parroted the “innocent until proven guilty” line — but having to go through this again clearly was weighing on them.

“I’m mad at even the prospect of this being true,” one said.