NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A crowd broke into thunderous applause for U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) Wednesday evening, as he spoke in his own defense after being indicted on corruption charges.
“For nearly three years, I have lived under a Justice Department cloud, and today, I am outraged that this cloud has not been lifted. 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,” Menendez said. “But I will not be silenced.”
Menendez, an influential voice on foreign policy, was indicted Wednesday on accusations of using his office to improperly benefit a Florida eye doctor and political donor who provided him with trips aboard his luxury jet.
Web Extra: Sen Menendez Addresses Allegations
The indictment from a federal grand jury in New Jersey charged the senator with 14 counts, including bribery and conspiracy, over his ties to Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy doctor and the politician’s longtime friend. According to the indictment, Menendez accepted nearly $1 million in gifts in exchange for his influence, CBS2’s Dick Brennan reported.
Melgen also was charged in the case.
Web Extra: Read The Indictment
“Government corruption – at any level of elected office – corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a news release. “It is the fundamental responsibility of the Department of Justice to hold public officials accountable by conducting thorough investigations and seeking an indictment when the facts and the law support it.”
But Menendez said federal prosecutors are the ones committing wrongdoing.
“I am confident that at the end of the day, I will be vindicated and they will be exposed,” he said.
Menendez talked at the news conference about fighting corruption at the beginning of his political career. A few years before Menendez was elected mayor of Union City in 1986, former mayor and New Jersey State Sen. William Musto was convicted and sentenced to prison, along with other local officials, for a kickback scheme with mob connections, NJ.com recalled.
“I was called to testify for the prosecution. I received death threats. I wore a bulletproof vest for a month,” Menendez said. “That is how I began my career in public service, and this is not how my career is going to end.”
As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, Menendez claimed prosecutors have confused camaraderie with corruption.
“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 improper,” he said. “They are dead wrong, and I’m confident that they will be proven so.”
A crowd of people broke into thunderous cheers and rounds of applause for Menendez repeatedly throughout the news conference and afterward. The crowd included members of the Cuban-American community and Superstorm Sandy victims, CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported.
The cheers continued at every break in the speech despite a comment from Menendez that “this is a press conference.”
“He’s the only person that has been behind us through this whole Hurricane Sandy fiasco,” said Sandy victim Linda Ferraro.
Some were convinced that Menendez was paying a price for opposing the White House on Iran and Cuba policy.
“It’s a political reaction, because he does not support the president at this moment,” said Antonio Acosta.
But reaction from others reflected fatigue with the reputation for corruption in New Jersey.
“Seems like a lot of it’s going around; it’s a lot of it in New Jersey,” said John Jones of Union County.
“(Ex-Newark Mayor) Sharpe James did the same thing — doing favors for friends — and he went to prison for it,” said Michael Hunter of Newark. “So (Menendez) should go to prison too.”
The indictment clouds 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. A person familiar with Menendez’s situation, who was not authorized to discuss the senator’s plans publicly, said Menendez would voluntarily and temporarily step aside from his role as top Democrat on the committee.
Melgen’s attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
The 68-page indictment could lead to a drawn-out legal fight between Menendez and a team of Justice Department corruption prosecutors who have spent the last two years investigating his ties to Melgen. The dispute will require prosecutors to establish that a close and longtime friendship between the men was used for illicit purposes and is likely to present questions about whether Menendez is shielded by the Constitution from prosecution over the legislative acts he performed.
The indictment from a grand jury in his home state was the latest development in a federal investigation that came into public view when federal authorities raided Melgen’s medical offices in 2013. It depicts a relationship in which gifts such as round-trip flights to the Dominican Republican were quietly traded for favors such as political intervention in medical billing and contractual disputes.
Also among the gifts listed was a three-night getaway in a five-star Parisian hotel with a woman with whom Menendez had a relationship.
Among the allegations is that Melgen provided Menendez with free trips to the Dominican Republican aboard his luxury jet and that the senator, between 2007 and 2012, never disclosed the gifts he received from the doctor.
In exchange for those and other gifts, prosecutors say, Menendez tried to influence immigration proceedings of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, sought to protect a lucrative contract Melgen held to provide cargo screening services to the Dominican Republic, and intervened in a Medicare billing dispute involving millions of dollars by pushing the Obama administration to change reimbursement, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.
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 he did nothing wrong and says he and Melgen have been friends for decades.
“We celebrated holidays together,” he told reporters last month. “We have been there for family weddings and sad times like funerals and have given each other birthday, holiday and wedding presents, just as friends do.
“Let me be very clear — very clear — I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law.”
Melgen came under renewed scrutiny when government data last year showed he had received more in Medicare reimbursements in 2012 than any other doctor in the country.
According to the Senate Historian’s Office, Menendez is the 12th senator to be indicted and the first since the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was indicted in 2008 on charges of not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of home renovations. Stevens was convicted but the charges were later dismissed.
Menendez is also the second New Jersey senator to be indicted. Harrison Williams Jr., a Democrat, was indicted in 1980 on corruption charges and convicted of bribery and other counts the following year. Williams resigned before the Senate could vote on whether to expel him.
Menendez, 61, joined the Senate in 2006 after serving more than a decade in the House of Representatives.
A lawyer and former mayor of Union City, Menendez also served in the New Jersey General Assembly and state Senate.
Several New Jersey politicians quickly released statements Wednesday afternoon voicing their support for Menendez.
“Senator Menendez has never wavered in his commitment to the people of New Jersey,” New Jersey’s other U.S. senator, Cory Booker, said. “He’s been an invaluable resource and a mentor to me since I arrived in the Senate. Our system of justice is designed to be fair and impartial, and it presumes innocence before guilt. I won’t waiver in my commitment to stand alongside my senior Senator to serve our great state.”
“All Americans, not just Senator Menendez, are entitled to a presumption of innocence,” Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J. “These charges are just an accusation. My friend, Bob Menendez is not going anywhere. I know that he will get through this and nothing will distract him from doing what he does best, fighting for New Jersey.”
“Anyone who makes an assumption that discounts Bob Menendez is underestimating the Senator, as he has proven to be a remarkable fighter on behalf of the residents of New Jersey, tackling international policy issues,” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop said. ” … Unfortunately, accusations are nothing new in politics and Senator Menendez, like all Americans, is entitled to a presumption of innocence.”
Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee attacked Menendez, saying his “ethics lapses have long been a distraction” to the Senate.
“With today’s indictment, the FBI and the Justice Department made it clear that Senator Menendez has betrayed the trust of New Jersey families,” spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said in a statement. “His actions reinforce all that the American people believe is wrong with Washington Democrats and closes the book on a Senate Democrat majority that put their personal interests ahead of the American people.”
Ben Dworkin, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics, said the indictment does not necessarily mean the end of Menendez’s political career.
“It is unclear how strong the government’s case is going to be,” Dworkin told WCBS 880’s Levon Putney. “But we should remember, the government doesn’t always win these cases.”
The White House has said political differences never play a role in prosecutorial decisions.
Menendez will be in U.S. District Court in Newark on Thursday to answer to the charges.
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