Despite Justice Department indictment, Senator Menendez says he’s ‘not going anywhere’


Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was defiant in his press conference Wednesday evening, telling press and cheering supporters in both English and Spanish at a Newark hotel ballroom that he will fight the indictment brought against him by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier that day – maintaining his innocence as he has throughout the drawn out investigation that led to it – and saying that he was “not going anywhere.”

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), above, and Mark Kirk, (R-Ill.), introduced a bill calling for more sanctions on Iran in December. The Obama administration has rallied forces in Congress to oppose further sanctions on Iran at this time. File photo
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) says he will fight to clear his name after Justice Department indictment on public corruption charges on April 1, 2015  File photo

“For nearly three years, I’ve lived under a Justice Department cloud; and today I’m outraged that this cloud has not been lifted,” said Menendez. “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. But I will not be silenced. I am confident, [that] at the end of the day, I will be vindicated and they will be exposed.”

A federal grand jury in Newark, N.J. indicted Menendez on charges of public corruption after a more than two year Department of Justice investigation into the senator’s misuse of his office on behalf of longtime friend and donor, Florida-based ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen, who was also indicted.

Menendez, 61, will face charges connected to a “bribery scheme in which [he] allegedly accepted gifts from Melgen, 61, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen’s financial and personal interests,” according to a DOJ statement citing Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell of the DOJ’s criminal division and special agent Richard Frankel of the FBI’s Newark division.

Menendez and Melgen were both charged on 13 counts: one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the Travel Act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez was also charged with one count of making false statements.

The DOJ listed specific accusations against Menendez in its statement.

These examples included accusations that Menendez accepted close to $1 million in “lavish gifts;” accepted “flight’s on Melgen’s private jet,” or first class commercial tickets to vacation at Melgen’s private Caribbean villas and other exotic locations; and receiving campaign contributions – over $750,000 – from Melgen. In return, Menendez is accused of using his “Senate office to influence the outcomes of ongoing contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars” on Melgin’s behalf, “and to support the visa applications of several of Melgen’s girlfriends.”

“Government corruption – at any level of elected office – corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell.  “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.”

Menendez, who says he has been personal friends with Melgen for decades, accused prosecutors at DOJ of not knowing “the difference between friendship and corruption.”

“[They] have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something improper,” he said.

As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – as well as serving as the committee’s chairman prior to the GOP Senate takeover following the 2014 midterm elections – Menendez has played a key role in Senate foreign policy initiatives.

Considered a hawk even when compared to some Republicans, Menendez’s stance on how the United States should conduct its foreign policy and fight against radical extremist terrorists, often put him at odds with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party.

His fierce opposition to the U.S.-led P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran and advocacy for additional sanctions on Islamic state in the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act – which President Barack Obama threatened to veto on multiple occasions, including two consecutive State of the Union speeches – made him a pariah to his party’s own administration.

Yet, these efforts made him a star among many in the pro-Israel community, for both Jewish Democrats and Republicans. During his 2012 reelection campaign, he was the top recipient of donations from pro-Israel individuals and groups, who gave him a total of $346,470, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) came out in full support of Menendez pointing to its strong working relationship with the senator and praising his devotion on both domestic and foreign policy matters important to the AJC and many in the American Jewish community.

“Senator Menendez has stood up for victimized nations, persecuted minorities, and the least fortunate here at home. From AJC’s vantage point, our nation has been strengthened significantly in so many meaningful ways by the Senator’s long record of public service,” the AJC said in a statement. “Regarding this week’s news of a federal indictment, unless and until the government proves its case, the Senator is presumed to be innocent.

“We, therefore, intend to continue to work with him closely, as we have throughout his tenure. His leadership on pressing policy issues is too important to be silenced on anything less than proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In his keynote address at last month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, he was enthusiastically received with numerous standing ovations.

In his speech, Menendez predicted the coming indictment, insinuating that the investigation was part of the Obama administration’s attempts to silence him. Many audience members shared this sentiment.

“I can tell you one thing: as long as I have an ounce of fight left in me, as long as I have a vote and a say and a chance to protect the interest of Israel, the region, and the national security interests of the United States – Iran will never have a pathway to a weapon. It will never threaten Israel or its neighbors, and it will never be in a position to start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Not on my watch!” he said. “That is why I will not yield to those who wish to break me. For so long as I have a voice and a vote, I will not yield to those who wish to break my resolve on stopping Iran’s elicit nuclear program – and on preserving the unshakeable bond between Israel and the United States.”

Despite his influence on the Foreign Relations committee, National Journal reported that Menendez is expected to temporarily step down from his leadership position to devote more time to fighting the lawsuit, according to sources close to the senator.

Nevertheless, Menendez promised that he will win the fight and continue serving his state.

“People of this great state elected me to serve and represent their interest in the United States Senate, and that is exactly what I have, and will continue to do,” he said. “No matter how long it takes to clear my good name. New Jersey is my home and I intend to continue to fight for it.”

[email protected]  @dmitriyshapiro

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