WASHINGTON — At the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce "Walk to Washington" dinner — an annual pilgrimage of about 900 of the state's political to-dos to the nation's capitol — the boozed-up talk of the Marriott Wardman Park hotel bar Thursday night was centered on the Democratic junior Senator Bob Menendez and the alleged prostitution scandal in which he now finds himself entangled.
According to a report in the Miami Herald, a West Palm Beach eye doctor with close ties to Senator Menendez was raided by the FBI for being "suspected of providing free trips and even underage Dominican Republican prostitutes to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez," according to the article.
(The report comes months after a Daily Caller piece that featured video interviews with two women from the Dominican Republic who said Menendez had paid them for sex.)
Menendez — who had been scheduled before the scandal broke to deliver a speech at the event, along with New Jersey's other U.S. senator, Frank Lautenberg — kept his commitment to speak. His remarks, about nine minutes long, focused almost exclusively on Hurricane Sandy and did not make even passing reference to the reports of his impropriety.
The senator was, in fact, all but mum on the accusations from the moment he entered the Marriott to the moment he ducked out, chased all the while by a bevy of reporters before scrambling into an elevator that took him and an entourage to the basement of the hotel.
At the start of the night, when Menendez entered the Marriott ballroom shortly before dinner was scheduled to begin, he was followed down the hall by a handful of reporters. In response to questions about the allegations, Menendez referred the group to "comments released through my office."
"These are nameless, faceless allegations — you should find out who that is," he added, heading into the ballroom.
Menendez's nearly silent appearance at Chamber of Commerce gathering did not quell the speculation among eventgoers, who gathered after dinner in the hotel bar to knock back well drinks and glasses of red wine.
One cameraman for a New Jersey television station remarked, "We all came here for him, didn't we?"
"He must have known every alley and back door in the Senate," said one Capitol Hill aide, who noted that he had not seen Menendez wandering the halls at all in the days since the Miami Herald story broke.
One N.J. political operative said that the story didn't become "a thing" until the report this week of the FBI raid. "When it was that weird Daily Caller video, it was whatever," said the operative. "Now, he's going to have to figure some way to put this to bed."
Menendez was more often the butt of every joke in the bar — "Did they have to be underage too? Couldn't he have found some nice 16-year-olds?" — than a subject on which informants could actually trade information. "I didn't even know about this until this morning when I read the [Herald] article," said one operative in the hotel lobby. "No one knows anything."
A former state official mulling around the hotel bar expressed disbelief that the senator was actually guilty of the allegations. "He's dumb, but he's not stupid," said the Chamber guest.
In a statement released Wednesday, Menendez's office said the doctor now at the center of the scandal, Dr. Salomon Melgen, has "been a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years," read the statement. "Senator Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen's plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately. Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false."
Menendez, while at the dinner, was seated on stage between Ralph Izzo, director of PSEG Power, and Tom Bracken, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, who was seated next to Governor Chris Christie. Ushered on stage as soon as he arrived at the Marriott, the senator appeared on good terms with his political friends and colleagues on the stage, shaking hands and giving hugs to those around him.
Senator Lautenberg weighed in on the issue hours before the Chamber of Commerce event began, telling a reporter from the New Jersey Star-Ledger, "If there are infractions as they are reported, it's too bad."
But Thursday night at the event, Lautenberg and the other speakers present — including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — remained silent on Menendez and the allegations.