A federal grand jury has indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey of corruption in connection with a bribery scheme. The long-serving legislator vigorously denied those allegations.
Charges have also been brought against Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, who federal prosecutors say gave Menendez gifts in exchange for favors. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said Melgen used Menendez’s power to advance his financial and personal interests.
Menendez, a Democrat, and Melgen have been charged with eight counts of bribery, and each charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Over the course of eight years ending in January 2013, Menendez accepted nearly $1 million worth of gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for the power of his Senate office, the indictment alleges. The gifts included nights in Paris, trips in the Dominican Republic and lavish golf trips in West Palm Beach.
Those perks, prosecutors say, were traded for political favors.
In particular, Melgen used Menendez to influence the outcome of Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars, according to Department of Justice officials. Menendez also helped support visa applications of several of Melgen’s girlfriends, officials said.
Menendez has said his connection to Melgen predates his Senate position, and that there was nothing shady about the friendship when Menendez became a U.S. senator.
At a Newark press conference packed with his supporters on Wednesday evening, Menendez vowed to fight the charges, saying he will utimately be vindicated.
“I’m angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator, and my friendship, into something that is improper. They are dead wrong, and I am confident that they will be proven so,” Menendez said before boisterous applause from supporters erupted.
‘Right to honest, unbiased service’
“The job of an elected official is to serve the people,” said FBI Special Agent Richard Frankel. “The citizens of New Jersey have the right to demand honest, unbiased service and representation from their elected officials at all levels of government.”
The federal investigation has been unfolding for some time. Two years ago, the feds raided the West Palm Beach offices of Melgen, a Dominican-born friend of Menendez who’s donated generously to the senator. Investigators received an anonymous tip about Melgen’s potentially sketchy dealings with Menendez, including gifts, campaign donations and private jet trips to the Dominican Republic.
What it all boils down to is whether Menendez abused his office, using his powerful position as a U.S. senator, to help Melgen through his legal knots in exchange for gifts. Melgen is under investigation for supposedly overbilling Medicare and reportedly owes millions of dollars in back taxes.
Furthermore, the doctor has investments in ports in the Dominican Republic, raising another question to federal officials: whether Menendez tried to push business through those ports as a favor.
Menendez originally didn’t pay for the Dominican Republic trips, but after the federal probe became public, he reimbursed Melgen $70,000 for plane trips, calling the failure to disclose those trips an oversight.
Menendez has stepped down from his key leadership position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at least temporarily saying “I believe it is in the best interests of the committee, my colleagues, and the Senate which is why I have chosen to do.”
‘I am not going antwhere’
Political analysts say as Menendez fights the charges, he’s expected to have allies in Congress.
Menendez has raised a lot of money for some Senate colleagues and they might give him leeway, said Fairleigh Dickinson political science professor Peter Woolley.
And Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin said the indictment does not spell the end of Menendez’s political career. Menendez, appointed to the Senate to fill out Jon Corzine’s term in 2006, won’t face re-election until 2018.
“If the election were very soon, it would be an entirely different set of dynamics as people who would want to see themselves in that seat might jump on a bandwagon to push him out,” Dworkin said Wednesday. “I don’t see any movement to do that at this point in time.”
Menendez has fiercely maintained his innocence all along.
“Let me be very clear,” he said last month when it was first reported that an indictment was coming. “I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law. And I am not going anywhere.”
Menendez has been one of the leading voices in Congress calling for hearings into whether Superstorm Sandy victims were defrauded by insurance companies that allegedly underestimated property damage in a widespread way. And some Sandy victims gathered Wednesday evening to cheer him on.
The timing of the indictment is interesting because it comes after Menendez, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized President Obama’s policies on Israel and Cuba, said analyst Woolley.
“So you’re tempted to wonder whether there’s a connection there,” he said. “Is it that an indictment was accelerated because of Menendez’s criticisms or were Menendez’s criticisms a result of a sense that the indictment might happen?”
Before former Gov. Jon Corzine named Menendez to the Senate, he had served in the House for many years representing Hudson County. Corzine was resigning his Senate seat after being elected governor. Corruption allegations have been leveled at Menendez during past campaigns, but this is the first time prosecutors have brought charges.
WHYY’s Phil Gregory contributed to this report.