Menendez defends himself, denounces timing of probe. Democrat sees 'orchestrated' smear campaign

Menendez defends himself, denounces timing of probe
Democrat sees 'orchestrated' smear campaign
September 09, 2006  Star-Ledger

Facing a federal investigation just two months before his election, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez offered a fiery defense of his honor yesterday and accused the U.S. Attorney of engaging in an "orchestrated" smear campaign to destroy him.

The Democratic senator at tacked the timing of a subpoena is sued by federal investigators seek ing documents related to a rental deal Menendez had with a nonprofit agency in Hudson County from 1994 to 2003. The subpoena was delivered to the North Hudson Community Action Corp. earlier this week, sources familiar with the move told The Star-Ledger Thursday night.

During a defiant speech to fel low Democrats during the party's annual conference in Atlantic City, Menendez alleged that his Republican challenger, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., was working with U.S. At torney Christopher Christie.

"Tom Kean Jr.'s entire playbook has been straight out of the Bush-Rove playbook and now he's even gotten the U.S. Attorney involved," Menendez said, referring to the president and White House political director Karl Rove.

"Suddenly, 61 days before an election, a prosecutor appointed by George Bush decides to take an interest and, not coincidentally, leaks to the press follow immediately," Menendez said.

Then he brought the hundreds of Democrats at Bally's casino to their feet by thundering: "I will not allow an orchestrated, concerted effort to smear and personally destroy those who oppose this administration."

Privately, some Democrats acknowledged it was an extraordinarily risky move because Christie has won bipartisan praise for pursuing public corruption cases in both political parties. But they said Menen dez had little choice as he faced the prospect of campaigning in a hotly contested election under the cloud of a criminal investigation.

The U.S. Attorney's office yesterday declined to comment on the investigation.

The Star-Ledger reported on Aug. 25 that Menendez had collected $300,000 in rent over nine years from North Hudson Community Action Corp., and had helped the agency win millions of dollars in federal funds.

Kean, who held a news conference in Mount Holly on another topic yesterday, said his campaign "absolutely" did not have any contact at any point with the U.S. At torney's Office regarding the probe. He said Christie has been "above reproach" and nonpolitical.

Kean, who previously accused Menendez of using his public office to enrich himself through the rental deal, yesterday said the subpoena is "clearly very troubling news and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an ongoing criminal investigation."

Democrats rallied around their candidate yesterday, with Gov. Jon Corzine calling the timing of the subpoena "troublesome" and U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg calling it "sinister."

Corzine, who appointed Menen dez to the Senate in January, said he believed Menendez's handling of the rental was "appropriate." He flat-out rejected any possibility that Democrats were facing a repeat of 2002 when then-Sen. Robert Torricelli quit his re-election bid weeks before the election and was replaced by Lautenberg.

"No talk whatsoever of a shift in candidates. None. Zero," Corzine said. "Nobody has brought that up to me and I don't think they will because I believe in due process. I believe in the fairness of our system. As far as I know, the only thing that's been unfair so far is public revealing of subpoenas 60 days in front of election."

Corzine said he had backed Christie's appointment and has been a supporter of his efforts to root out public corruption. But he said the investigation of Menendez had the "appearance of being less then objective."

The luncheon where Menendez delivered his speech took on the air of a pep rally, as the senator's congressional colleagues delivered speech after speech in his defense.

They praised Menendez's immi grant roots and ridiculed the privileged upbringing of Kean, the son of former governor and 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean. And while not accusing Christie directly, they said Republicans were trying to take Menendez down to thwart Democrats' attempt to win control of the Senate.

Rep. Steve Rothman said Me nendez had "absolute and total integrity." He said Republicans were trying to "steal" the election and "will do anything to get power, to hold onto power."

Rep. Robert Andrews boldly guaranteed Menendez would win and said, "this election is not about who can do the most opposition research on the other side."

Before the luncheon, Assemblywoman Linda Stender went further than most, calling the investigation "politically motivated." Stender is challenging Rep. Mike Ferguson in the state's most competitive congressional race.

Menendez also received backing from national Democrats. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, issued a statement alleging that Kean was using the "GOP attack machine ... a despicable tactic that will backfire."

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Aaron McLear, said "ultimately voters in New Jersey will hold Bob Menen dez accountable for his failed policies and his links to corruption." He added that the RNC intends to "make sure Kean from a national perspective has the resources he needs to motivate his base and get his message out to the voters of New Jersey."

Republicans sought to head off any possibility of a switch in Democratic candidates. State Sen. Leonard Lance and Sen. Anthony Bucco urged Senate President Richard Codey to bring to a vote a bill that would prohibit it within 48 days of a general election, except in the event of a candidate's death.

Menendez also faced new questions about the rental deal that triggered the investigation. He has said the House Ethics Committee gave him verbal clearance for the arrangement in 1994, but that there is no written record of the conversation. Yesterday, for the first time, he offered the name of the lawyer he said he consulted: Mark Davis.

However, according to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, Davis left the ethics committee in 1993. Davis died last year.

"It was his recollection that he talked to him about this, but it must have been someone else. It was 12 years ago," said Matt Miller, Menendez's campaign spokesman.

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