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$3,388 DINNER?

Did Bob Menendez’s Donors Know They Were Paying for $64 Steaks?

When it comes to the art of living well on political contributions, the New Jersey Democratic senator operates at a masterclass level.

Senator Bob Menendez and his wife, Nadine Arslanian
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Senator Bob Menendez and his wife, Nadine Arslanian, arrive for a reception at the White House on May 16, 2022.

During the early evening of November 29, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey was hunkered down at Morton’s Steakhouse in downtown Washington, where he and an associate were savoring cordials and smoking cigars on a covered patio that overlooks Connecticut Avenue. Morton’s is a popular gathering spot for the city’s political elite, but it was a slow midweek night, and only about half the tables had customers—mostly male, many cigar smokers like the senator and virtually all clad in similar models of the standard power suit typically favored by government officials and political hangers-on.

For a man facing a potentially long stretch in prison for allegedly taking bribes from agents of the Egyptian government, New Jersey’s senior senator looked remarkably relaxed. As he and his table mate chatted and blew clouds of smoke from their cigars, Menendez joked with waiters, shook hands with well-wishers who stopped by to greet him, and exchanged friendly glances with customers passing by, almost all of whom he seemed to know.

I was at Morton’s that night because I was told that Menendez is known to hold court there so regularly that lobbyists who want to speak with him are said to decamp at the bar and wait for him to come by. Still, I assumed when I left my home to head to the restaurant that the odds of the senator being there were low, so when I opened the door to the patio area around 7:30 p.m., I was happy to see him at a table just inside—and based on the various glasses, large empty bottle of mineral water, and full ashtrays atop it, it seemed that he and his companion had been there for some time.

Morton’s is priced beyond my budget. The 16-ounce New York Strip, which Menendez has said is his favorite item on the menu, goes for $64, twin lobster tails for $99, a glass of Tempranillo for $31, and a jigger of brandy, which I believe the senator and his associate may have been drinking as it was served in a snifter, typically runs from $20 and up. But whether or not he’s squirreled away bribe payments as the government charges, Menendez can pick up the tab at Morton’s without fretting because he’s rarely paying out of pocket. As of early 2021, he had billed his campaign treasury and an assortment of other political committees about $300,000 for meals and catering at Morton’s, the New York Post reported that year. Since then, the figure has ballooned by another $74,000, Federal Election Commission records show.

Menendez is not alone among elected officials who spend copious amounts of donor cash on wining, dining, and other creature comforts. For example, in a rare rebuke from the largely inert entity known as the House Ethics Committee, a report it released last month revealed soon-to-be expelled Congressman George Santos misspent $40,000 in campaign money on OnlyFans, Botox treatments, and trips to the Hamptons and Atlantic City.

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy charged his leadership PAC, the Majority Committee, roughly $1 million in restaurant, hotel, and travel bills between 2012 and last June, the Los Angeles Times reported last week. McCarthy utilized more than twice as much money from his leadership PAC for those purposes as the seven other elected officials who held their parties’ top House and Senate positions during the past 11 years combined, the Times concluded.

When it comes to the art of living well on political contributions, though, Menendez operates at masterclass level, and Morton’s is merely the proverbial tip of the iceberg. During the past two decades, he dished out about $4.3 million from his campaign treasuries and New Millennium Leadership PAC for food, drink, catering, travel, and other lifestyle enhancers.

That works out to an average of more than $200,000 per year, well above his current annual Senate salary of $174,000. Even better, the money appropriated by Menendez—whose office didn’t reply to a request for comment for this story—to cover the cost of these indulgences is effectively tax-free income, so its true value is far higher than the per capita figure.

It’s generally legal for politicians to use donor money to cover costs related to official duties, and campaign finance law defines that term so broadly it’s a rule that’s hard to break. Hence, on any given night Congress is in session, lawmakers and their associates can be found at the barstools and dining tables of Washington’s tonier establishments, whose prohibitively high prices deter the riffraff from entering and make those establishments relative safe havens for the political aristocracy, corporate executives, bankers, lawyers, diplomats, and lobbyists.

On the night I saw Menendez at Morton’s, he and his table mate leisurely smoked and drank for an hour after I arrived and discussed—as far as I was able to pick up above the noise on the patio—immigration and the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Then Menendez raised his finger in the air to signal to the waiter he wanted the check and put down a credit card when it was brought to his table. “Thank you,” the senator said after he signed the receipt.

“See you next time,” the waiter replied cheerfully as Menendez gathered up his coat and headed toward the exit with his companion.

Eight Fundraising Committees

When FBI agents raided Menendez’s home in New Jersey last year, they found $480,000 in cash stashed in clothing, closets, and envelopes and $70,000 more in a safe deposit box of Nadine Menendez, the senator’s wife and co-defendant in his upcoming trial. There were also the now notorious gold bars estimated to be worth $155,000, a Mercedes Benz, compensation for Nadine for what the Justice Department called a “low-or-no-show job,” and other bribes allegedly showered on the couple by their Egyptian friends.

This, of course, is Menendez’s second brush with the law. Six years ago, he was tried for allegedly taking payoffs of private plane flights and hotel lodging and accepting hefty campaign contributions from Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist. In exchange, the Justice Department alleged, the senator went to bat for Melgen in disputes with the government over Medicare reimbursements and helped obtain tourist visas to the United States for three of the doctor’s youthful mistresses from Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Menendez’s trial ended in a hung jury in 2017. The following year, Melgen was sentenced to 17 years for swindling Medicare to the tune of $73 million. President Donald Trump commuted his sentence in January 2021 as he was on his way out the White House door.

If you tote up all the bribes the senator allegedly received from Melgen and Egyptian sources, their total value pales in comparison to the vast pool of ready cash that’s perpetually at Menendez’s disposal in the form of political donations from those seeking his support at home and abroad, the traditional method lawmakers employ to monetize elected office. Even with the taint of criminality that followed him after his first trial, Menendez remained a longtime senior member and sometimes chairman of the Senate Committees on Banking, Finance, and Foreign Relations—he stepped down from the latter after his latest indictment—with a lot of power, the ultimate currency in Washington.

Menendez’s influence helped make him a prodigious fundraiser as well as a profligate spender and helped fill the coffers of the eight federal funding arms he’s established since arriving in Washington three decades ago. Six were political committees: one to finance his House campaigns between 1992 and 2004, another for his three Senate runs since then, the New Millennium Leadership PAC, and three joint fundraising committees. The other two were legal defense funds that solicited cash to pay the lawyers’ bills for his criminal defense in 2017 and the upcoming one.

Menendez’s combined career fundraising haul to date comes to almost exactly $100 million. His top contributors, unsurprisingly, are disproportionately members of the one percent demographic. At the pinnacle are PACs and executives affiliated with Goldman Sachs and Blackstone, the law and lobbying giant Greenberg Traurig, and AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups.

Mind you, Menendez has had little need to raise money as he’s steamrolled most of his Democratic primary opponents and Republican general election rivals. His most competitive race was his first run for the Senate in 2006, which he won by nine percentage points. More typical were Menendez’s three House races between 2000 and 2004, when he collectively outspent a trio of GOP opponents by $8.3 million to $12,619 and waltzed to victory by an average margin of 58 percent.

His Record Morton’s Tab: $3,388

Of the global pile of political cash Menendez has raised over the years, nearly four-fifths went to his House and Senate campaign accounts. But New Millennium, which then-Congressman Menendez created in 1999, has been a central piggy bank for financing his seemingly insatiable gormandizing, trips to the beach to spend quality time with friends and donors, and purchases of other goods and services that help make his life richer and keep his bank account fuller by reducing his personal burn rate.

New Millennium’s first and only treasurer is Abraham Antun, a longtime crony of Menendez’s and the administrator of Hudson County, New Jersey. Menendez cut his teeth there back in the 1980 as mayor of corruption-besotted Union City, where he became known as the local “political boss.”

When the FEC approved leadership PACs more than 40 years ago, their primary stated purpose was to allow officeholders to raise money to support other candidates. As time went by, many members of Congress turned them into slush funds to pay for tickets for Broadway shows and sporting events, membership dues and fees at private clubs, travel to vital political hot spots like Disneyland, and other similarly uplifting activities.

A 2021 report by Campaign Legal Center and Issue One showed that during the prior two years, 120 lawmakers who had established leadership PACs dispensed less than half the funds they collected for their originally intended political purposes. Instead, they simply piled up money from special interests and used it “to enjoy perks of lavish living that are beyond the reach of most Americans,” the report stated. Menendez was found to have devoted only 39 percent of his New Millennium takings to politics, compared to an average of 70 percent by all of the nearly 500 members of Congress with leadership PACs.

New Millennium has reported approximately $800,000 in lifetime itemized expenditures for the type of recreational activities flagged by the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One. All of that was dispensed since 2003, when Menendez began using the leadership PAC to pay for such purposes on an industrial scale.

The federal indictment of Menendez and his wife alleges that the couple met Egyptian-American businessman Wael Hana, who is charged with paying him bribes, and an Egyptian government official at an unnamed steakhouse. “What else can the love of my life do for you?” Nadine Menendez allegedly asked the two men during the meal.

Menendez has charged his leadership PAC enormous sums for steakhouse meals, including about $200,000 of his historic Morton’s tab of $374,000. The senator’s single-day spending record at Morton’s was $3,387.95 back in 2010, but he’s enjoyed dozens of $1,000-and-up meals there, including a gathering that cost $1,525 on October 5, 2020, two days after his wedding to Nadine. New Millennium’s treasury has covered the costs for dozens of Menendez’s outings to other Washington prime beef purveyors as well: The Palm, Capital Grille, and Charlie Palmer to name only a few.

Menendez availed himself of significant additional resources from his leadership PAC to dine at a variety of steakhouses in New Jersey and while traveling. He’s made repeat stops at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills, where the Wagyu Tomahawk Chop, the most expensive item on the menu, retails for $240. The price tag for the senator’s full spree of New Millennium–financed steakhouse visits comes to at least $247,000.

New Millennium’s reserves have been further depleted by Menendez’s excursions to sample other culinary delicacies. Judging from his PAC’s balance sheets, Italian is his second-favorite food group after steak. FEC records show nine trips to Cafe Milano in Georgetown, whose habitués include members of Congress, senior government officials, every president since the restaurant opened in 1992 except Donald Trump, and Secret Service agents assigned to protect the VIP diners.

Cafe Milano was also an unofficial base of operations for lobbyists at Cassidy and Associates that were hired by Egypt’s intelligence service to polish the image of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who took power in a 2013 military coup. While the lobbyists hosted dinners at the restaurant to woo lawmakers, the head of the intelligence service and several of his officers were allegedly meeting directly with Menendez and his wife to negotiate his personal terms to promote Egypt’s interests in Washington.

French cuisine appears to be another Menendez favorite. He’s rung up 66 New Millennium–financed charges totaling more than $12,000 at Bistro Bis. Located off the lobby of the Hotel George, a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building on the Senate side, Bistro Bis’s most acclaimed dishes are Confit de Canard and Steak Frites. Menendez has also developed a discerning palate for Indian delicacies. He’s ventured to the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington five times to dine on his PAC’s account at Common Wealth, where a typical dinner for two with drinks can be had for $150 or less, which in Menendez’s world is a budget meal.

Donations to New Millennium also covered charges at establishments serving Mexican, Mediterranean, Cuban, and Spanish fare. All told, Menendez’s leadership PAC has been billed for about $472,000 at hundreds of restaurants since 2003, which adds up to an average annual wining and dining subsidy of more than $23,000. That figure climbs to a staggering $75,000 per year, using a conservative estimate that excludes a good part of charges categorized in FEC reports as catering, when the senator’s lavish expenditures at restaurants paid for out of his campaign account are added to the pile.

Puerto Rico, Beverly Hills, and Coral Gables

When Menendez was courting Nadine, he took her on trips to Turks and Caicos, Greece, and India, where he proposed to her at the Taj Mahal during a congressional delegation to India paid for by the U.S. government. He’s been able to further indulge his passion for no-cost travel thanks to disbursements of at least $254,00 from the New Millennium treasury for plane fares, lodging, and related costs.

When on the road, the senator often pampers himself with stays at luxury hotels and resorts. During the past few years, New Millennium has shelled out more than $143,000 at three oceanfront resorts in Puerto Rico, including more than $3,000 for rooms during three stays at the Condado Vanderbilt in San Juan, where guests can order cocktails from the pool butler and relax in the wood-paneled Avo Lounge cigar bar.

Roughly two-thirds of the $143,000 covered the costs of fundraisers Menendez hosted for his top donors at the St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort and the Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach. That doesn’t include the senator’s latest Puerto Rico fundraiser, an October affair at the Ritz-Carlton property. The timing was unfortunate as Menendez had been indicted just weeks earlier and only about a dozen people attended, about half the senator’s aides. Full platters “of sushi and shrimp cocktail were left uneaten,” read a New York Times account of the desolate evening.

When his leadership PAC is picking up the cost of lodging in the Miami area, the senator has often booked a room at the historic Biltmore in Coral Gables. The hotel’s lush tropical landscaping, 18-hole golf course, and 23,000-square-foot pool make it “one of the most luxurious destinations in the world,” says a Miami tourism website.

During a June 2022 trip to Beverly Hills, New Millennium’s bank balance took a hit for more than $5,300 to pay for lodging at the Four Seasons Hotel near Rodeo Drive. The property features a Palm tree–bedecked saltwater pool and a 24-hour spa whose menu of services includes facials, manicures, pedicures, and a “Surrender Massage” that produces a state of “blissful relaxation,” the hotel website boasts.

The trip was enhanced by meals at Mr. Chow, the iconic Chinese eatery whose customers include Hollywood A-listers Jennifer Lopez and Jack Nicholson, and Ocean Prime, which is rated as one of the Los Angeles area’s best steak and seafood restaurants. The senator hit up his leadership PAC for close to $700 to pay for the two dinners.

Menendez enjoys playing golf, and he’s been able to spend additional time on the links thanks to more than $20,000 from New Millennium for the costs of food, travel, greens fees, and fundraising events. He hosted two such affairs at Liberty National Golf Club, which was co-founded by Fireman Capital Partners chairman Paul Fireman and his son Daniel, who are both donors to Menendez, and reportedly charges members an initiation fee of $500,000.

About $1,400 of New Millennium’s reserves paid for catering at three intimate fundraisers held at the exclusive 116 Club on Capitol Hill. Described by Politico as a “physical embodiment” of influence peddling with a board of directors that’s “a who’s who of lobbyists, industry group leaders and congressional staffers,” its roster of members is a closely guarded secret but is known to include current and former elected officials.

Over the years, Menendez’s leadership PAC has disgorged ample supplementary funding for various and sundry purposes, including approximately $9,000 to pay for cabs, Ubers, and car services. The lion’s share covered 15 charges with Carey International, an executive transport firm that offers clients options such as a stretch limousine with wet bar, moon roof, and tinted windows or luxury sedans made by Mercedes, Lexus, and Audi, all of which come with a chauffeur.

Shortly after Menendez and his wife were indicted in September, New Millenium contributed $10,000 to the senators new legal defense fund. Last year, it spent $15,000 to underwrite Robert J. Menendez’s successful campaign to win the New Jersey House seat once occupied by his father.

“A Millionaire’s Lifestyle”

Neither bad press about his political spending habits nor his legal travails have served to dissuade Menendez from treating his leadership PAC as an all-purpose cash-dispensing ATM. From 2021 through August 2023, New Millennium reported expenditures of $135,000 to nine luxury hotels, $70,000 to 34 Washington restaurants (more than half of that to Morton’s), and another $15,000 for airfare.

Expansive use of New Millennium’s treasury on Menendez’s part is unlikely to run afoul of campaign finance laws if only because the FEC is an utterly feckless political watchdog. Earlier this year, the commission ruled that existing restrictions on personal expenditures from campaign accounts don’t apply to leadership PACs. Flaccid FEC enforcement on leadership PAC spending allows members of Congress to “live a millionaire’s lifestyle with money from their multimillionaire donors,” says Washington lawyer and campaign finance expert Brett Kappel.

Menendez’s most recent personal financial disclosures show he has assets in the neighborhood of $350,000 to $500,000, which makes him one of the less affluent members of the Senate, at least on paper. He periodically cites his relative poverty as evidence that he’s just an average Joe who lives paycheck to paycheck, but his extravagant dispensations of donor cash reveal he’s not nearly as short of money, or indifferent to its allure, as he likes to pretend.