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Sen. Robert Menendez, indicted on federal charges, still popular in hometown

Newly charged Sen. Robert Menendez is stepping down temporarily as top Foreign Relations Committee Democrat

Salsa music serenaded the shoppers on Union City's main drag, where a bargain furniture store boasted low prices, garantizado, and a restaurant advertised a job with a sign reading, "Se necesita bartender."

Down a side street, clucks could be heard from a live poultry market that shared a narrow avenue with modest homes packed tightly together.

This is the place Sen. Robert Menendez called home, the working-class immigrant city that elected him mayor in 1986, that saw him soar to the upper echelons of Democratic power in Washington, and that watched Wednesday as he was indicted on federal corruption charges.

The charges, long-awaited after questions surfaced about Menendez's personal and business dealings with a longtime friend, ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen of West Palm Beach, Fla., mark the first time since 2008 that a sitting senator has faced criminal charges.

Menendez and Melgen, both 61, were each charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez, who is accused of receiving nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for helping his friend, was also charged with one count of making false statements.

A powerful force on Capitol Hill and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has long denied wrongdoing, and continued to do so Wednesday.

"I have always conducted myself in accordance with the law," he said at a news conference in Newark, N.J. The Justice Department "doesn't know the difference between friendship and corruption."

Menendez blamed the indictment on false allegations by political enemies and said: "I will be vindicated and they will be exposed."

In his hometown, at least, where Menendez attended high school and was elected to the Board of Education at age 20, there was a strong willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt as Justice Department officials announced the indictment. After all, Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, used to be a lot like the people living in this New York City suburb, where Latinos are more than 80% of the population, where attitudes are strongly anti-Castro, and where the city's nicknames include "Havana on the Hudson."

"I don't know him personally, but I've listened to him, and he's a good man," said Roberto Alfonso, who arrived in Union City from Cuba 21/2 years ago and works at one of the Cuban restaurants downtown. "Everybody knows everybody here. If he did something wrong, there would be talk of it."

As she walked her dog near the live poultry shop, Gabriela Garcia echoed others who wondered whether federal officials' pursuit of Menendez could somehow be linked to his opposition to President Obama's restoration of ties to Cuba.

"Why else would they go after him, when every politician is corrupt?" Garcia said. "Just look around!'

New Jersey has a history of corrupt officials, and Union City has endured its share. Its former mayors include William Musto, who beat Menendez in a mayoral election in 1982 despite having been convicted earlier that year of taking kickbacks in connection with school construction projects.

Menendez, then the city's Board of Education secretary, was one of the officials who had spurred the inquiry into the crooked projects.

More recently, Raul "Rudy" Garcia served as Union City mayor from 1998 until 2000, when he resigned rather than fight a recall movement sparked in part by a state investigation into a now-defunct Democratic organization he had chaired.

Their pictures, and Mendendez's, are displayed at a local cultural center and museum named for Musto. "I think he was a very, very good mayor," said Colombian-born volunteer Frank Bernal, motioning toward Menendez's smiling face while giving a brief tour.

"Today is his big day," Bernal said with a shrug, referring to the indictment. "Me, I don't think he had anything to do with it."

But the accusations against the senator brought swift repercussions and cast him in a light that many of his hometown fans were sure to find upsetting.

According to the indictment, between January 2006 and January 2013, Menendez accepted gifts from Melgen in exchange for helping the doctor in contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars. The senator also "took active steps" to support the visa applications of several of Melgen's girlfriends, and one of their sisters, prosecutors said.

Specifically, the indictment alleged that Menendez accepted flights on Melgen's private jet, a first-class commercial flight and a flight on a chartered jet; that he took numerous vacations at Melgen's Caribbean villa in the Dominican Republic and at a Paris hotel; and that he accepted $40,000 in contributions to his legal defense fund and more than $750,000 in campaign donations.

"Government corruption — at any level of elected office — corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system," Assistant Atty. Gen. Leslie Caldwell said in describing the case against Menendez and Melgen.

Melanie Sloan, former executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, who filed a complaint against Menendez in 2012, said the indictment made a strong case but would face significant legal hurdles.

"It's an aggressive indictment," Sloan said. "There is a lot of really seedy stuff."

The case is among the biggest prosecutions by the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section since its botched handling of the trial of then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) seven years ago.

Menendez is not required to give up his seat because of the indictment. But in a statement issued late Wednesday, he said he would step aside temporarily as ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The biggest immediate problem for Democrats is the increasingly endangered nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general. Menendez has indicated he might have to abstain from voting on an attorney general nominee who would be overseeing his prosecution. That leaves the Obama nominee one vote short unless one of several wavering Republicans decides to back her.

Menendez's clout as a senior Democrat in the Senate leadership could diminish if other senators try to distance themselves. But last month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) went out of his way to offer support.

"Sen. Menendez has done a stellar job as chair of the committee, and as far as I am concerned, he's been an outstanding senator," Reid said.

After the indictment was announced, Frank Sharry of America's Voice, which lobbies for immigration reform, praised Menendez. "He has been a tireless fighter for immigrants and immigration reform," Sharry said. "He has been relentless and effective."

Many Democrats, including fellow New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker — and some national Latino advocates — are rallying in support of Menendez.

Republicans, though, pounced.

"Sen. Menendez has betrayed the trust of New Jersey families," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek. "His actions reinforce all that the American people believe is wrong with Washington Democrats and closes the book on a Senate Democrat majority that put their personal interests ahead of the American people."

Eleven other senators have been indicted during the institution's history, said Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie. Four have been convicted, but two of those convictions were overturned, including Stevens'.

The last senator to serve time in prison, Ritchie said, was one of Menendez's predecessors from New Jersey, Democrat Harrison Williams. He served 21 months on charges resulting from the Abscam bribery investigation.

tina.susman@latimes.com

Twitter: @tinasusman

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Twitter: @timphelpsLAT

Susman reported from Union City, N.J., and Phelps from Washington.

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

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