Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was defiant in his press conference on April 1, telling press and cheering supporters in both English and Spanish inside a Newark hotel ballroom that he will fight the indictment brought against him by the Department of Justice earlier that day, and that he is “not going anywhere.”
Said the senator: “For nearly three years, I’ve lived under a Justice Department cloud, and today I’m 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. But I will not be silenced. I am confident, at the end of the day, I will be vindicated.”
That day, 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 alleged misuse of his office on behalf of longtime friend and donor, Florida-based ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen, who was also indicted.
The following day, Menendez and Melgen were arraigned before U.S. District Judge William Walls.
Both men pleaded not guilty and were released after their passports were confiscated.
Menendez, 61, will face charges connected to a “bribery scheme in which [he] allegedly accepted gifts from Melgen, 60, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen’s financial and personal interests,” according to a DOJ statement.
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,” and 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 Melgen’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 Leslie 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.”
As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – as well 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 opposition to the U.S.-led P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran and advocacy for more sanctions on Islamic state in the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act made him a pariah to his party’s leadership.
Yet, these efforts made him a star among many in the pro-Israel community, for both Jewish Democrats and Republicans. During his 2012 re-election campaign, he was the top recipient of donations from pro-Israel individuals and groups, who gave him $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 domestic and foreign policy matters important to the AJC and many in the American Jewish community.
“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.”
In his keynote address at last month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, he was given numerous standing ovations.
In his speech, Menendez predicted that the indictment was coming and insinuated that the investigation was part of an Obama administration attempt to silence him.
“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,” he said.
Less than a week after Menendez’s speech to AIPAC, information leaked to news media about a coming indictment by the DOJ raised eyebrows. Some commented that the DOJ’s action was part of a coordinated effort by the Obama administration to silence a senator who had bucked them on everything from Iran to the normalization of relations with Cuba.
“We hope the timing is just a coincidence and that these charges on years-old events are not brought up now because of political motivations,” said a press release from the pro-Israel political action committee, NorPAC.
Despite the influence he wielded on the Foreign Relations committee, Menendez abdicated his position last week. Menendez, in a letter to Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said that he hoped the move would be temporary.
Although retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was the next most senior Democrat on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was tapped to take Menendez’s spot.
Like Menendez, Cardin is also viewed favorably by the pro-Israel community and is regarded as less outspoken and less abrasive than his predecessor.
“Cardin is somebody who has the bona fides as it relates to Israel and as it relates to Iran that are impeccable,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America. “I think he’ll be a millimeter more deferential to the administration but he’s not someone who is going to be content with Congress not having oversight [of the final P5+1 agreement.]”
Cardin’s low-key demeanor matches that of the mild-mannered chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who, unlike some other Republicans pushing for immediate, additional economic sanctions to pressure Iran to agree to a more favorable deal, has sided with Democrats in support of giving the administration time to complete negotiations.
According to a statement from the DOJ, Menendez and Melgen’s next court date is April 22, with their trial scheduled for July 13.