U.S. Senator Robert Menendez pleaded not guilty in New Jersey federal court to a corruption indictment he says twists his longtime friendship with a Florida donor into unfounded crimes.
Menendez, a Democrat, is charged with abusing his Senate post to help the donor get visas for girlfriends and resolve business disputes with the U.S. and Dominican governments. The donor, eye surgeon Salomon Melgen, also pleaded not guilty Thursday in federal court in Newark.
“We’ll finally have an opportunity to respond in court with the facts,” Menendez, 61, said outside the courthouse. “These allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven to be false.”
Menendez was accused Wednesday of helping Melgen in return for more than $1 million in gifts and campaign donations. The U.S. says he improperly used his influence to address civil claims that Melgen overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million and aided an effort by Melgen’s company to provide port security in the Dominican Republic.
U.S. District Judge William Walls set a tentative trial date of July 13. Menendez and Melgen are charged with conspiracy, bribery, honest-services fraud and violating the Travel Act. Menendez also is charged with making false statements.
The most serious counts carry a maximum prison term of 20 years. Under U.S. sentencing guidelines, Menendez would probably serve significantly less time if convicted.
In court, Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell and Justice Department prosecutor Peter Koski sparred over whether Menendez should forfeit his personal passport and retain his Senate passport to travel on congressional business.
“If this were any other defendant without the title of United States senator, he would be required to surrender his passport,” Koski said. Walls agreed, ordering Menendez to give up his personal passport.
Before the 35-minute hearing started, Menendez and Melgen smiled and nodded to each other. Neither man spoke during the proceeding as defense lawyers entered their not guilty pleas.
Melgen, 60, was freed on $1.5 million bail. He was told to surrender his U.S. and Dominican passports, to not fly in his luxury jet and to remove several firearms from his house.
Calls for Resignation
Menendez is the 12th senator charged with a crime while in office, and the first since Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who was found guilty in 2008 of seven corruption-related felonies. The verdict was set aside in 2009 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Stevens was killed in a 2010 plane crash.
Menendez has come under pressure to resign, with both the New York Times and the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s biggest newspaper, calling for him to quit. On Thursday, Maryland’s Ben Cardin was named the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Menendez temporarily stepped down.
The indictment describes 18 plane trips that Menendez and his guests took, including flights on Melgen’s private jets to his oceanfront estate in the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo, which was staffed by cooks, maids and other servants.
Menendez used Melgen’s American Express rewards points to cover a weekend stay at a five-star Paris hotel, according to the U.S. Before the trip, Menendez e-mailed his preference for a “king bed, work area with Internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower,” according to the indictment.
The New Jersey senator and his staff also helped with the visa applications for three Melgen girlfriends -- one a Brazilian model and lawyer, one a Dominican model and another a Ukrainian model, the U.S. says.
Outside the courthouse, Lowell echoed the defiance that Menendez flashed on Wednesday night, when the senator said he was “angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption.” The defense is expected to argue that Menendez and Melgen had a 20-year bond and the favors were motivated by friendship and not political scheming.
The relationship between Menendez and Melgen burst into view before the 2012 election when the Daily Caller website ran stories saying Menendez had sex with two prostitutes, age 16, at Melgen’s Dominican villa. Menendez, who was re-elected, denounced the claims as smears, and the Dominican police rejected the report, saying women were paid by a lawyer to falsely say they had sex with the senator.
“This investigation started with false and salacious allegations made by political and other opponents of Senator Menendez,” Lowell said. “There was a real friendship and not a corrupt relationship.”
Lee Vartan, a former federal prosecutor now at Holland & Knight in New York who’s not involved in the case, said prosecutors will need to show a quid pro quo to prove each of the two types of bribery alleged in the case. One form involves campaign contributions, the other gifts. Proving bribery through political donations is harder, he said.
“This is a case that’s defensible,” said Vartan. “There is neither a clear victory for the government nor a clear victory for the defense, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this goes to trial.”
The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-00155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).