Reportedly facing charges, Menendez denies any wrongdoing – Philly.com
WASHINGTON – Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), whose profile has risen in the Senate and on the international stage, is expected to face criminal corruption charges.
The charges, first reported by CNN on Friday, could come within weeks, several media outlets reported. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has signed off on the case, CNN said, citing sources briefed on the matter.
Menendez said late Friday that he had “always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law,” and that “every action” in his 23-year public career “has been based on pursuing the best policies” for New Jersey and the United States.
Reading from a statement to reporters in Newark, N.J., Menendez said, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Menendez, 61, had acknowledged being the subject of a federal inquiry. It is believed to be centered on the senator’s help for a friend and top campaign donor, Salomon Melgen.
Investigators have examined whether Menendez aided Melgen in exchange for gifts.
Melgen, a South Florida eye doctor, has battled federal officials over charges of overbilling Medicare by $8.9 million and has sought Menendez’s help in enforcing a contract for one of his businesses in the Dominican Republic. Menendez has reportedly tried to intervene with federal officials to assist Melgen with both issues.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said he could neither confirm nor deny any impending charges. Holder told a Wall Street Journal reporter Friday, “I can’t comment on that.”
Menendez has grown into a key congressional player on major issues, most prominently as an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear program.
He is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a lead sponsor on bills to allow Congress to review any nuclear pact with Iran and impose new sanctions on it if talks fail.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress on Tuesday, Menendez was among the lawmakers who escorted him into the House chamber.
Three days later, Menendez was responding to reports that he could be indicted.
Melgen and his family and business have donated more than $900,000 to Menendez, his political committees, and Democratic committees that have aided the senator, including $700,000 to a committee that backed his 2012 reelection.
The Menendez-Melgen relationship came under public scrutiny when the FBI raided the doctor’s West Palm Beach practice in January 2013.
At the time, Menendez acknowledged taking two flights in 2010 on Melgen’s private plane to the Dominican Republic, where they vacationed at a resort. Shortly before the 2013 raid, Menendez paid $58,500 for the trips, saying his failure to pay earlier was an oversight.
Menendez later disclosed a third unpaid flight on Melgen’s plane, from New Jersey to Florida in 2011. His campaign paid the donor $11,250, saying it was for a political event.
In Washington, Menendez and his top aides reportedly contacted federal officials several times to advocate on Melgen’s behalf as the doctor fought a ruling that he had overbilled Medicare for costly eye treatments.
Details of the interactions were laid out in federal court filings briefly (and apparently mistakenly) unsealed and reported by the New Jersey Law Journal and in reports by the Washington Post.
In 2012, according to the filings, Menendez and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) met with then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius over the Medicare dispute.
On a second issue, Menendez spoke to officials at the State Department on Melgen’s behalf, the New York Times reported. This time, the donor had purchased an interest in a company with a contract to screen cargo at Dominican ports, but the deal was caught up in a dispute.
Menendez and his aides pushed to help Melgen have the potentially lucrative contract enforced, and the senator raised the issue with officials at a subcommittee hearing.
In addition, the court papers said, Menendez’s former chief counsel e-mailed a U.S. Customs staffer to ask that the agency refrain from donating screening equipment to the Dominican Republic, so as to help Melgen’s outfit make a sale, the Law Journal reported.
“We believe all of the senator’s actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that,” Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright said in a statement Friday. “Any actions taken by Sen. Menendez or his office have been to appropriately address public policy issues and not for any other reason.”
The court papers were released as officials tried to force two former Menendez aides to testify. They were citing the speech-and-debate clause, a part of the Constitution that shields lawmakers from prosecution for legislative activity.
Intended to protect Congress from undue pressure from the executive branch, the clause creates a high bar to prosecutors pursuing senators or representatives.
Menendez has spoken broadly of his friendship with Melgen, another issue that could be used against a prosecution. If their relationship is seen as genuine friendship, it could be more difficult to prove that any gifts were meant to win favor.
Menendez said Friday that he and Melgen and their families “have been real friends for more than two decades.”
He added, “We celebrate holidays together, have been there for family weddings and funerals, and have given each other birthday, holiday, and wedding presents – just as friends do.”
Menendez would not be required to resign from the Senate if he was indicted. But if he left under pressure, Gov. Christie would have the chance to name a replacement until a special election could be held – allowing the Republican governor to at least temporarily flip a safe Democratic seat to the GOP.
But Menendez is a defiant figure. People who know him expect him to fight any charges and refuse to step down.
The investigation has been expensive. Last year, Menendez spent $762,577 from his legal defense fund, IRS filings show. He previously spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees from his campaign fund.
Menendez is not up for election again until 2018 – though if he is indicted, it could affect his standing as the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
A Cuban-American, Menendez rose through the state Legislature and then in Congress, breaking numerous barriers for Hispanics along the way. He became the third-ranking Democrat in the House before joining the Senate.
While running for his first full Senate term in 2006 (after being appointed to the job that year to fill the seat vacated by Jon S. Corzine), Menendez was dogged by reports about a federal investigation into a nonprofit that rented space from him and benefited from grants he helped secure for it.
Menendez won reelection, and no charges were filed.
As he sought his second full term in 2012, rumors surfaced about his relationship with Melgen. The most salacious were widely discredited.
But the investigation into Menendez continued. It now casts a cloud over him.