They gathered on the steps of Elizabeth City Hall accusing the U.S. Department of Justice of infusing race and politics in the corruption retrial of Sen. Bob Menendez.
“It is shameful, but it is scary that the balance of justice is being utilized for a witch hunt,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz.
Prominent Latino leaders from across the state are sounding off about a motion filed by the lead prosecutor in Menendez’s case, requesting the Department of Justice prevent Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen from talking about their Hispanic heritage during the new trial.
Attorney Peter Koski said, “Arguments about a defendant’s political affiliation or ethnicity have no place in a criminal trial.”
“I woke up this morning, and I can tell you even if I wanted to come to this press conference and pretend that I wasn’t Latina, I can not do that. It is in my DNA. It is who I am. It is who he is,” said Ruiz.
“This whole retrial is an effort by the Department of Justice to damage Menendez for the upcoming election,” said Rep. Albio Sires.
Menendez and his friend, a wealthy Florida eye doctor, were indicted on charges of bribery and corruption last year, but the trial ended in a hung jury, with 10 of the 12 jurors in favor of acquitting Menendez. Prosecutors argue jurors were subject to lines of Latino supporters and clergy members holding prayer circles outside the courtroom before entering each day, saying it may have swayed their opinions and chided the defense’s argument that Menendez’s Cuban heritage and Melgen’s, of Dominican Republic heritage, was part of their strong bond, illustrating their friendship.
“In the onslaught by the Department of Justice and Trump administration against immigrants, this is clear that this is just part of it,” said Assemblyman Vincent Prieto.
“A Justice Department that instead of focusing on major crimes, such as domestic terrorism, drugs and corporate fraud, had focused on demonizing our immigrant community and our leaders,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, president of Latinas United for Political Empowerment.
But the leaders also say this is an attempt to derail the senator’s re-election bid in November. Democrats have 49 seats in the U.S. Senate, but are hoping to pick up two more. The trial though, has taken a toll on Menendez’s reputation. The Department of Justice did not offer a comment.
“These foul attempts to dis-empower one of the most respected senators in the state of New Jersey is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Dollars that can go toward funding other federal projects that meet the needs of New Jerseyans,” said Wilda Diaz, the mayor of Perth Amboy.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Williams Walls acquitted both Menendez and Melgen of seven of the 18 counts on which they were tried last year. For now, this group says there are no action items, just a show of support.