When does a friendship become corrupt?
That question is at the heart of the Department of Justice’s case against Sen. Robert Menendez, who was charged on 14 counts including bribery and conspiracy Wednesday for allegedly accepting from a top donor-friend close to $1 million in gifts in exchange for political favors. Menendez is only the twelfth senator ever to be indicted.
To bolster their case, the federal authorities are claiming that the New Jersey Democrat improperly used his office in 2007 and 2008 to help the donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, bring three girlfriends to the United States on tourist and student visas.
Detailed in about ten pages of the indictment, Menendez and his office allegedly contacted officials at the State Department and U.S. embassy in the Dominican Republic to secure the visas. In one case, a woman prosecutors described as Melgen's girlfriend—a Dominican model—and her sister were denied tourist visas by the U.S. embassy because an employee was “not fully convinced” of their travels’ motives. Melgen told Menendez that day and the senator told a staffer to “Call the Ambassador asap.” The women—ages 18 and 22—received their visas by the next month. The indictment also alleges that Menendez met with the women, meeting one for dinner at a swanky Miami hotel with Melgen and the two others at Melgen’s Dominican Republic Casa De Campo villa.
While the details of the allegations are salacious, the onus will be on the prosecutors to establish that the Melgen-Menendez friendship was actually an illegal exchange of gifts and services. The 68-page indictment also alleges that Menendez pressured the State Department to influence the Dominican Republic to ensure a major Melgen port security contract and that he improperly advocated on behalf of Melgen in his multimillion-dollar Medicare billing dispute.
Meredith McGehee, the policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, says that Menendez could be aided in the case by an exemption for gifts from personal friends, which she says provides a “very large safe harbor” for members and their staff. Melgen and Menendez’s friendship dates back to the early 1990s.
“I think the prosecutors actually face a big hurdle in demonstrating efficiently to a jury why these gifts that Menendez received do not fall into the personal friendship exemption,” she told TIME. “He’s been a public official for most of his adult life and public officials tend to collect a lot of ‘personal friends.’ That’s kind of their business.”
Menendez denied all charges Wednesday night and said that his prosecutors are "dead wrong."
“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,” he said.