By MATT APUZZOAPRIL 1, 2015
WASHINGTON — Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey was indicted on bribery charges on Wednesday in what prosecutors said was a scheme to trade political favors for luxury vacations, golf outings, campaign donations and expensive flights.
The indictment, the first federal bribery charges against a sitting senator in a generation, puts Mr. Menendez’s political future in jeopardy. He faces a possible sentence of 15 years in prison for each of the eight bribery counts.
Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, angrily denied wrongdoing and vowed to fight the charges. “This is not how my career is going to end,” he said at a news conference in Newark, where supporters cheered him. “Today contradicts my public service career and my entire life.”
The federal investigation into Mr. Menendez, 61, was well known, and charges had been expected. But the accusations in the 68-page indictment are much broader and more severe than had been publicly known.
The charges revolve around Mr. Menendez’s relationship with Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye surgeon and political benefactor. Dr. Melgen resisted entreaties by the Justice Department to testify against Mr. Menendez and was ultimately charged alongside him.
Prosecutors described Mr. Menendez’s offices on Capitol Hill as a hub of corrupt dealings, a place where the senator used his chief of staff to solicit gifts from Dr. Melgen, find out what he wanted in return and make sure it got done.
The indictment also represents the first time in the era of unlimited campaign donations that the Justice Department has charged a member of Congress for taking actions in exchange for donations.
Mr. Melgen earmarked $600,000 in donations to Majority PAC, a committee intended to help Democrats retain control of the Senate, as a way to help Mr. Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign.
This kind of unlimited donation became legal after a 2010 court ruling in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission. Critics of that ruling predicted that huge sums of money would inevitably buy corrupt favors from politicians.
Among the favors for Dr. Melgen, the department said, Mr. Menendez encouraged the Obama administration to change the Medicarereimbursement policy in a way that would make millions for the doctor. Prosecutors said he also tried to push a port security deal that Dr. Melgen was involved in, and helped the surgeon’s foreign girlfriends get travel visas to the United States.
A bribery charge is among the most serious accusations of corruption that the federal government can make. Prosecutors often opt to file a lesser charge of accepting a gratuity, which is easier to prove. A bribe amounts to the purchase of an official act, while a gratuity is seen as a way to curry favor with powerful officials.
Mr. Menendez is the first senator to face federal bribery charges since another New Jersey Democrat, Harrison A. Williams Jr., was indicted in 1980 as part of the federal corruption investigation known as Abscam.
To prove their case, prosecutors must show that Mr. Menendez’s actions and Dr. Melgen’s gifts were explicitly traded. The two men argue that they were longtime friends and that they exchanged gifts as part of that friendship.
“Prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” Mr. Menendez said on Wednesday.
The senator’s involvement in Dr. Melgen’s dispute with Medicare is the most damning element of the department’s indictment. Prosecutors cite emails showing that Mr. Menendez’s office was deeply involved in the dispute.
In 2009, Mr. Menendez sent an email instructing a staff member to call Dr. Melgen immediately regarding “a Medicare problem we need to help him with.”
Mr. Menendez argues that he intervened as a policy matter, not to help his friend. But emails show that his staff members conferred with Dr. Melgen regularly. “As you know we’ve been working on the Melgen case every day,” one staff member wrote.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials regarded the matter as a senator’s pulling strings for a friend. “We have a bit of a situation with Senator Menendez, who is advocating on behalf of a physician friend,” one health official wrote.
I'm not justifying his behavior, if there was truly illegal doings ... but as a constituent I can say I am saddened. I've witnessed him...
kentuckywoman2 1 hour ago
I think from the inception of our government, this has been the case. However, there are a few things that raise red flags and make me...
Sleater 1 hour ago
For some time it has appeared to be the case that Senator Menendez was skirting the line between legal and unlegal behavior, so it's no...
Lawyers for Dr. Melgen did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Dr. Melgen, 61, who is married, had college-age girlfriends who worked as models in Brazil, Ukraine and the Dominican Republic, prosecutors say. Several times, Mr. Menendez helped him resolve visa problems so that his girlfriends could come to the United States, prosecutors added. After learning that a visa had been approved, a staff member wrote, “In my view, this is ONLY DUE to the fact that RM intervened.”
Mr. Menendez accepted free trips on Dr. Melgen’s private jet and stayed at his resort home in the Dominican Republic. In 2010, prosecutors say, Mr. Menendez spent three nights in an executive suite at a five-star hotel in Paris, a stay valued at nearly $5,000. When Mr. Menendez realized how much the room would cost, prosecutors said, he sent an email to Dr. Melgen and asked him to book the room using rewards points.
After describing the room, with its limestone bath and enclosed rain shower, Mr. Menendez wrote: “You call American Express Rewards and they will book it for you. It would need to be in my name.” Dr. Melgen booked the room, prosecutors said.
Mr. Menendez’s life story is a parable of political tenacity. The son of Cuban immigrants — a carpenter and a seamstress — he began his political career as a school board member in Union City, N.J. He became mayor, assemblyman and state senator before being elected to the House in 2002. There, he established a reputation as one of his party’s best fund-raisers.
In late 2005, he was appointed to finish the term of Senator Jon S. Corzine, who left Congress to serve as governor of New Jersey. Almost immediately, Mr. Menendez was dogged by questions of financial impropriety.
Chris Christie, then the United States attorney in Newark, opened an investigation into a nonprofit group that paid Mr. Menendez more than $300,000 in rent at the same time that he helped it win federal grants. The case ultimately went nowhere, and Mr. Menendez won the election that year. Friends have dismissed it as a politically motivated investigation.
His political fate is now unclear, but he has given no indication that he plans to step down.
Mr. Menendez said on Wednesday that he would temporarily step down as the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Correction: April 1, 2015
An earlier version of this article, using information from the Justice Department, misstated the number of bribery charges that Senator Robert Menendez faces. It is eight, not seven.