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April 01, 2015

N.J. Senator Menendez indicted on federal corruption charges

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Robert Menendez said on Wednesday he was outraged at the U.S. Justice Department's move to indict him on corruption charges and vowed "he will be vindicated."

"I am outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me. But I will not be silenced," Menendez told a crowd of journalists and cheering supporters at a televised appearance in Newark, New Jersey.

Saying he had always acted in accordance with the law, Menendez said: "At the end of the day, I will be vindicated and they will be exposed."

Menendez, 61, was indicted in New Jersey along with Florida ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen on one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, seven counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud, the DOJ spokesman said, adding the senator was also charged with one count of making false statements.

Menendez is accused of accepting gifts from Melgen, 61, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen’s financial and personal interests, the Justice Department said. 

Between January 2006 and January 2013, the department said, citing allegations in the indictment, "Menendez accepted close to $1 million worth of lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to influence the outcome of ongoing contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to Melgen and to support the visa applications of several of Melgen’s girlfriends."

Menendez, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has denied any wrongdoing.

He will hold a news conference at 7 p.m. Wednesday in New Jersey.

Political science professor Matthew Hale at Seton Hall University in New Jersey said, “It is important to remember that Senator Menendez grew up in the rough and tumble rink of North Jersey politics ... He knows how to fight and I suspect he will fight these charges."

This Jan. 31, 2010, image released by Miami Dade College shows Dr. Salomon Melgen, posing for a photo at the book signing of "Growing American Roots," a book by Sen. Robert Menendez, at the college in Miami. (Miami Dade College, Phil Roche/AP File)

For some time, federal authorities have been investigating his relationship with Melgen, a Democratic donor accused of overbilling the government's Medicare program.

Menendez, who is Cuban-American, is among the most senior Hispanic politicians in the country. He was re-elected to a second term in the Senate in 2012. He spent 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"As we have said before, we believe all of the senator's actions have been appropriate and lawful, and the facts will ultimately confirm that," Tricia Enright, Menendez's communications director, said on March 6, responding to early reports that federal prosecutors were close to bringing charges against the senator.
Federal law enforcement officials carry boxes during a Jan. 30, 2013 raid by FBI agents on the West Palm Beach, Fla. business of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a prominent South Florida political donor. (J Pat Carter, File / AP)

Menendez will temporarily step aside as ranking member, or top Democrat, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the wake of his indictment on corruption charges, two Senate aides said on Wednesday.

Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Benjamin Cardin are the next most senior Democrats on the influential panel.

It was not yet clear who would be named as Menendez's replacement, although Boxer, from California, is believed to be concentrating on environmental issues in her last two years as a senator before retiring.

Boxer is ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Aides to Menendez and Republican Senator Bob Corker, the foreign relations panel's chairman, declined comment, as did aides to Boxer and Cardin.

A move by Menendez to step aside as ranking member would remove one of the Senate's most hawkish Democrats from an influential position in the realm of foreign affairs.

The New Jersey lawmaker has co-authored legislation that would tighten sanctions to increase pressure on Iran during talks on curbing its nuclear program, and another measure that would force President Barack Obama to submit any nuclear deal with Tehran for congressional approval.

Obama has threatened to veto both measures, saying they threaten the talks.

Menendez, the son of immigrants from Cuba, also opposes Obama's moves toward normalizing relations with Havana, saying the island nation's communist government must come further on human rights.