- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sen. Robert Menendez was indicted on public corruption charges that ranged from influencing the immigration visa proceedings for a Florida eye doctor’s foreign girlfriends to intervening in Medicaid billing disputes — all in exchange for campaign donations, fancy flights on private jets and vacations in the Dominican Republic.

The New Jersey Democrat, who was his party’s top-ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until he temporarily stepped aside Wednesday in the wake of the charges, claimed innocence and vowed to fight back.

The Justice Department indicted Mr. Menendez along with Salomon Melgen, a close friend of the senator’s and a major Democratic donor.

FBI agents have been building a case against Mr. Menendez and Mr. Melgen over the past two years since the conservative Daily Caller website reported in late 2012 that Mr. Menendez had hired underage prostitutes at Mr. Melgen’s home at a Dominican resort.

Those accusations were vehemently denied by Mr. Menendez and never confirmed by investigators, but the media ruckus focused the FBI’s attention on Mr. Menendez’s relationship with Mr. Melgen, who, in addition to running Melgen Retina Eye Center, made the vast majority of his wealth selling a data company to LexisNexis for $775 million.

The two 61-year-old men were indicted in the District of New Jersey on one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud.

SEE ALSO: Robert Menendez demanded visas for ‘foreign girlfriends’ of campaign donor: Indictment

Mr. Menendez also was charged with one count of making false statements, Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.

“I am ready to fight,” Mr. Menendez told supporters in a public statement Wednesday evening. “I am angry that the Department of Justice doesn’t know the difference between friendship and corruption.”

Mr. Menendez and Mr. Melgen reportedly met at a Florida fundraiser more than 20 years ago.

In a statement that he read both in English in Spanish, Mr. Menendez said he was outraged by the charges that the courts leveled against him and that he would continue to speak out against an investigation “provoked by those trying to silence me.”

Just last month, Mr. Menendez reasserted his innocence to reporters amid what he described as a “smear campaign” against him and his relationship with a longtime friend. “I am not going anywhere,” the embattled senator declared.

However, in a separate statement issued Wednesday night, Mr. Menendez surrendered his ranking position on the Foreign Relations Committee.

“I am hereby notifying you that I am temporarily stepping down as Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he wrote to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “While there is no caucus rule that dictates that I do so, I believe it is in the best interests of the Committee, my colleagues, and the Senate which is why I have chosen to do so.”

Ethics groups say that is the right call, no matter the final verdict in Mr. Menendez’s legal case.

“Sen. Menendez deserves a fair trial, but it is not appropriate for him to retain his powerful position within the Congress in light of the allegations against him, some of which could implicate foreign relations,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Right-leaning groups went further. They called for Mr. Menendez’s removal from his committee positions and demanded that he step down from Congress.

“It is past time for Bob Menendez to resign as United States senator,” said Phil Kerpen, president of American Commitment. “He has now been formally indicted on public corruption charges by a grand jury and cannot represent the people of New Jersey. … The stakes are too high today for him to hold this position of authority.”

Court documents made public Wednesday show that Mr. Melgen used private company jets to shuttle around the senator and his guests — quite frequently on trips to Mr. Melgen’s Spanish-style vacation villa on the Dominican Republic’s Caribbean coast.

“These aircraft were flown by Melgen’s private flight staff and stocked with refreshments for passengers,” the documents say. “Melgen furnished Menendez with many flights on these private jets over the course of several years, which Menendez accepted at no cost to himself. On more than one occasion, Menendez brought a guest. On at least one occasion, Menendez’s guest flew on the plane without Menendez in order to meet Menendez for a weekend stay at Melgen’s villa in the Dominican Republic.”

Mr. Melgen could not be reached for comment.

In exchange, according to the Justice Department, Mr. Menendez influenced the immigration visa proceedings of Mr. Melgen’s foreign girlfriends and pressured the State Department to influence the government of the Dominican Republic to abide by Mr. Melgen’s multimillion-dollar contract to provide exclusive cargo screening services at Dominican ports.

Court documents show that the powerful senator was also able to prevent U.S. Customs and Border Protection from donating a shipping container of surveillance equipment to the Dominican Republic, which would have threatened that contract.

In addition, the indictment claims Mr. Menendez wielded his influence over the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which was attempting to force Mr. Melgen to pay millions of dollars in Medicare overbillings that he owed the federal government.

Mr. Menendez arranged a meeting with Mr. Reid and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to discuss the matter.

Amy Richardson, a law partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, described the indictment against the sitting senator as “unusual” but not an indicator that he “will be kicked out of office.”

Ms. Richardson, a specialist in white-collar criminal defense, government enforcement actions and regulatory compliance, told The Washington Times that some of the charges filed against Mr. Menendez may be easier to pin on him for the simple fact that he is a public official.

“When you’re a public official, proving a bribe or a kickback is just easier because you’re in a position of power where there could be bribery or kickback,” she said.

Prosecutors accuse Mr. Menendez of soliciting and accepting from the eye doctor “hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions to entities” that benefited his 2012 Senate campaign in exchange for personal favors.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Mr. Melgen’s company officially donated $400,000 to Majority PAC, a political action committee supporting Democratic candidates, in June 2012, followed by $300,000 in mid-October 2012. Mr. Menendez was up for re-election that year, and more than $500,000 of the PAC’s dollars were directed to New Jersey.

Mr. Melgen’s family members gave $33,700 to Mr. Menendez’s 2012 campaign and $50,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, official records show.

Court documents indicate Mr. Melgen may have donated more, but Mr. Menendez tried to hide those transactions by omitting them from the annual financial disclosure reports that he was required to file under the Ethics in Government Act, according to the indictment.

“Specifically, in reports Menendez filed between 2007 and 2012, he never disclosed any of the reportable gifts that he received from Melgen,” the documents state.

The senator also withheld information from his staff in an effort to minimize his official interactions with Mr. Melgen. Those actions evoked a stern response from Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell.

“Government corruption — at any level of elected office — corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system,” Ms. Caldwell said in a statement. “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.”

The Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice should be doing more to combat corruption among government officials like Mr. Menendez, Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee said in a statement.

“It is high time the Public Integrity Section step up and take a more active role in safeguarding our democracy and the public’s faith in its government officials,” she said. “To restore its tarnished image, the Public Integrity Section must send a clear message to the American people that no one is above the law no matter how high an office they hold.”

In deciding to charge Mr. Menendez, federal prosecutors are looking to capitalize on a few high-profile public corruption wins. Those include the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in September for promoting a dietary supplement in exchange for gifts and loans. Mr. McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison, but is appealing the sentence.

In 2013, former Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi was convicted of using his job to pad his wallet and taking from a family insurance business to pay for his 2002 campaign.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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