A federal grand jury on Wednesday indicted Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, charging the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with trading political help for assorted benefits from an ambitious Florida eye doctor.
The opthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen, bestowed campaign contributions, plane rides and gifts upon the 61-year-old Menendez over the course of their long relationship. Menendez, prosecutors say, reciprocated by using his office to try to help Melgen’s various business ventures.
Menendez and Melgen, 61, of West Palm Beach, Fla., were indicted in the District of New Jersey for one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud, Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.
Menendez was also charged with one count of making false statements, Carr said.
A 22-year veteran of Congress who has had sometimes strained relations with the Obama administration, Menendez has previously denied wrongdoing.
“I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law,” Menendez said at a brief March 6 news conference, hastily convened following earlier media reports about the investigation.
The prosecution itself, pursued by members of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, could pose tricky legal questions about the fine line that sometimes separates politics-as-usual from quid-pro-quo trades.
By his own account, Menendez is a “quintessential American story,” as he grew up the son of Cuban immigrants in a Union City, N.J., tenement. According to his Senate biography, he “stood up to corruption” in Union City while serving as the mayor and later as a state legislator.
First elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, and to the Senate in 2006, Menendez has become a pivotal figure on Capitol Hill. His colleagues thought enough of his fundraising prowess to have him serve as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee head from 2009 to 2011.
He last won election in 2012, spending $16.2 million on his way to handily dispatching a Republican challenger by roughly 59 percent to 39 percent. He next faces re-election in 2018.
Most recently, he has been one of the key critics of President Barack Obama’s approach on Iran. In January, Menendez said Obama’s remarks about Iran in his State of the Union address sounded like “talking points coming straight out of Tehran.”
Menendez and Melgen have known each other for several decades, with Melgen delivering his initial $500 campaign contribution to the New Jersey politician in 1993. Since then, Melgen and his family members have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Menendez’s campaign treasury, as well as those of various state and federal Democratic committees.
New Jersey Republicans in 2012 formally complained that Menendez had broken Senate rules by flying on a private jet to the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. In January 2013, Menendez used his own funds to reimburse Melgen $58,500 for travel expenses.
“Senator Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen’s plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately,” Menendez’s office said in a statement at the time.
In early 2013, The Miami Herald and other media organizations reported that FBI agents and investigators from the Department of Health and Human Services searched Melgen’s office for several hours.
Menendez already has established a Robert Menendez Legal Expense Trust to help cover his already substantial legal fees. Through 2014, the fund had raised $784,250 and had spent most of it.
He is one of the least wealthy senators currently serving, with his most recent financial disclosure statement showing he is among the Senate’s relatively few non-millionaires.
William Douglas of the Washington Bureau contributed.