- Sen. Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who rose to become one of the highest-ranking Hispanic members of Congress, was charged yesterday with accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend in exchange for a stream of political favors.
Menendez predicted he would be "vindicated" and, in a defiant statement before reporters and cheering supporters last night, said, "This is not how my career is going to end."
He added: "I am not going anywhere. I'm angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service and my entire life."
A federal grand-jury indictment accuses the New Jersey Democrat of using the power of his Senate seat to benefit Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor who prosecutors say provided the senator with luxury vacations, airline travel, golf trips and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal-defense fund.
The indictment from a grand jury in Newark contains 14 counts - including bribery, conspiracy and false statements - against Menendez and also charges Melgen, a political donor to Menendez and other Democrats.
Menendez is scheduled to appear today in federal court in Newark. Melgen's attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment yesterday.
The criminal charges cloud the political future of the top Democrat - and former chairman - of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has played a leading role on Capitol Hill on matters involving Iran's nuclear program and U.S. efforts to improve ties with Cuba. Menendez said yesterday that he would temporarily step aside from his role as top Democrat on the committee.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer defended his Democratic colleague, saying: "Bob Menendez is one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state. I am confident he will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead."
The indictment will almost certainly lead to a drawn-out legal fight between Menendez and a team of Justice Department prosecutors who have spent years investigating his ties to Melgen. It will require prosecutors to prove that a close and longtime friendship between the men was used for criminal purposes and is likely to revive the legal debate about the constitutional protections afforded to members of Congress for acts they take in office, which Menendez has already signaled as a possible line of defense.
The indictment marks the latest development in a federal investigation that came into public view when federal authorities raided Melgen's medical offices in 2013.
Menendez had already acknowledged that he had taken several round-trip flights to the Dominican Republic on Melgen's luxury jet that, initially, were not properly reimbursed. But the 68-page document spells out many additional gifts, such as a Paris hotel stay and access to a Dominican resort, that prosecutors say were never reported on financial disclosure forms.
In exchange for those and other gifts, prosecutors allege, Menendez sought to smooth approval of the visa application process for several of Melgen's foreign girlfriends, worked to protect a lucrative contract Melgen held to provide cargo screening services to the Dominican Republic and intervened in a Medicare billing dispute on the doctor's behalf worth millions of dollars.
In 2013, in an email exchange one day after Melgen and Menendez had golfed together in Florida, Menendez told his chief counsel to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ask the agency to stop donating shipping container monitoring and surveillance equipment to the Dominican Republic, according to the indictment. Melgen had a contract to provide exclusive cargo screening in Dominican ports, and the CBP plan would have hurt his financial interests, prosecutors say.
Menendez has acknowledged taking actions that could benefit Melgen, among them contacting U.S. health agencies to ask about billing practices and policies. But the lawmaker has said that he did nothing wrong and that the interactions he had with the doctor were reflections of a close friendship dating two decades.