NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez entered a not-guilty plea Thursday, a day after being indicted on corruption charges.
Menendez, who entered the plea in front of a federal judge in Newark, was charged Wednesday with accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend in exchange for a stream of political favors.
His co-defendant, Salomon Melgen, also pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say the wealthy Florida eye doctor provided the senator with luxury vacations, airline travel and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund. Federal prosecutors also allege the senator pressured officials to resolve a multimillion-dollar billing dispute between Melgen and Medicare and helped secure travel visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends.
“For nearly three years, the Justice Department has pursued allegations based on smears launched by political opponents trying to silence me,” the senator said outside court after entering his plea. “Now they have laid out their case. We will finally have an opportunity to respond, on the record, in court, with the facts. As I said yesterday, these allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven false, and I look forward to doing so in court.”
The government says Menendez didn’t report the gifts as required. Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor, told CBS2’s Tony Aiello that makes it look as though “the senator is trying to hide that he is receiving these gifts. … And it sort of casts the relationship in a different light because they weren’t being transparent about it.”
Mendendez was released on his own recognizance, but had to surrender his passport, WCBS 880’s Levon Putney reported. Melgen must post $150,000 in cash and $1.3 million in real estate.
The defendants are due back in court April 22. A tentative trial date is set for July 13.
Web Extra: Sen Menendez Addresses Allegations
Melgen was stone-faced and flanked by his attorneys as he walked into federal court Thursday morning, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
CBS2 cameras captured Menendez leaving his home just after 11 a.m.
— Rebecca Eden Granet (@RebeccaGranet) April 2, 2015
The 14-count indictment marks the latest development in a federal investigation that came into public view when federal authorities raided Melgen’s medical offices in 2013.
Web Extra: Read The Indictment
Menendez claims prosecutors have confused camaraderie with corruption.
“Prosecutors at the Justice Department often get it wrong,” the senator’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said, citing failed cases against political figures such as Ted Stevens and John Edwards. “These charges are the latest mistakes.
“Now they have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a 20-year friendship relationship between Dr. Melgen and Sen. Menendez was something else. They have to prove that the consistent and proper policies of Sen. Menendez were something other than that and were done not because it was the right thing to do, but for a corrupt purpose.”
Menendez said he will not resign from the Senate, but he plans to temporarily step down from his leadership role on the Foreign Relations Committee, 1010 WINS’ Juliet Papa reported.
The senator’s constituents have mixed reactions.
“It’s what they do, it’s politics,” Newark resident Bernard Davis said. “Everybody is stealing from everybody. It’s just who gets caught. I guess he got caught.”
“He has done a lot of great things for his community, so I think that counts, too,” said Geraldo Pino, of Jersey City.
Menendez supporters have organized an effort they call “I Stand With Bob,” but there is at least one petition urging him to resign, WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane reported.
A Star-Ledger editorial said the senator could be fighting charges for years and should “spare us the drama.”
Montclair State University political science professor Bridget Harrison said Menendez has been in the legal spotlight before.
“I think in some cases he wears it as rather a badge of honor, having risen through the ranks of Hudson County politics, which is amongst the most corruptly viewed politics in the state of New Jersey,” Harrison told WCBS 880.
Each bribery charge he faces carries a maximum 15 years in prison.
The news of Menendez’s indictment was met with what appeared to be a coordinated round of supportive statements from national and New Jersey Democrats.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said he won’t waver in standing alongside Menendez.
“Bob Menendez is one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state,” said New York Sen. Charles Schumer. “I am confident he will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.”
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.
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