A federal grand jury in New Jersey charged Menendez on 14 counts, including eight related to bribery and another on conspiracy. Federal authorities have been looking into whether Menendez, who rose from a tenement in Union City to become the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, exchanged political favors for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gifts and campaign contributions from a Florida eye doctor, who was also indicted Wednesday.
Throughout the federal probe, Menendez has repeatedly said he has committed no wrongdoing. In a lively news conference in Newark, New Jersey, on Wednesday evening, a defiant Menendez knocked the Justice Department in both English and Spanish, periodically halting to wait for fierce cheers to die down.
“I’m 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,” he said. “But I will not be silenced. I’m confident at the end of the day I will be vindicated and they will be exposed.”
“I’m angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life,” he said. “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 added. “They are dead wrong and I am confident that they will be proven so.”
And in a letter addressed to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, Menendez said he would “temporarily” step down as Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
“While there is no caucus rule that dictates that I do so, I believe it is in the best interests of the Committee, my colleagues, and the Senate which is why I have chosen to do so,” he explained, adding that he would “retain my membership and seniority” and “will once against ascend” to the position “upon the successful resolution of the allegations before me.”
There isn’t a party rule that forces Democratic senators in top positions to relinquish their leadership roles, as there is for Republicans. A few weeks ago, Reid said he would not “deal in hypotheticals” when asked if Menendez should step down from his Committee spot if charged. Menendez has been an influential voice in international affairs, as well as an occasional thorn in the Obama Administration’s side on issues regarding Iran and Cuba.
In a statement Wednesday, Reid, who voluntarily interviewed with DOJ and FBI officials last year as they investigated the corruption charges, said he appreciated Menendez’s “willingness” to temporarily step down. “He has been a consistent champion for the middle class,” Reid continued. “As I have said about both Democrats and Republicans, our justice system is premised on the principle of innocent until proven guilty and Senator Menendez should not be judged until he has his day in court.”
It’s the first time in Reid’s decade at the helm of the caucus that he has had to deal with a charged colleague. The last such Senate Democrat, Harrison A. Williams of New Jersey, was indicted 35 years ago.
Menendez allegedly intervened on behalf of the eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, in three major ways, the indictment details: to facilitate the visa applications of three of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends; to “pressure” the State Department and influence the Dominican Republic to ensure Melgen a 20-year, multi-million dollar port security contract; and to protest Medicare reimbursement audits alleging that Melgen—Medicare’s top-paid physician in 2012—overbilled the government by about $8.9 million.
In 2012, about six days after Melgen issued a $300,000 check to a political action committee benefiting Senate Democrats, the indictment states Menendez delved into his friend’s Medicare billing dispute, taking his position in a meeting with the chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and later with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Menendez’s troubles came to light in January 2013, when FBI and HHS officers raided Melgen’s Florida offices after the conservative website Daily Caller ran an article that claimed Menendez paid two women in the Dominican Republic for sex at a gated oceanfront resort, where Melgen owned a home. While Menendez emphatically denied the report and the FBI found no evidence to support its claims, the Senator ended up personally reimbursing Melgen over $58,000 for two other private jet trips to the country in 2010, citing sloppy paperwork. Menendez did not disclose the free trips as required by Senate rules for three years and the chamber’s ethics committee reviewed the violation.