Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez on Thursday pleaded not guilty to sweeping corruption charges, and his lawyer signaled he plans to portray the Justice Department decision to charge his client as the latest in a long line of botched public-corruption cases.
Federal prosecutors claim Mr. Menendez tried to hide the extent of his relationship with Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen from his staff and omitted gift transactions from annual financial disclosure reports he filed between 2007 and 2012. During that time, Mr. Menendez accepted close to $1 million in lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Mr. Melgen.
Mr. Menendez’s indictment is the highest-profile case the Justice Department has taken regarding a sitting U.S. senator since Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican. Mr. Stevens’ public corruption case was so severely mishandled by the Justice Department that two federal prosecutors were suspended and all charges against Mr. Stevens were dropped, albeit not until after he’d been defeated in his re-election campaign.
“As we have seen in so many cases — from former HUD Secretary Mike Espy’s in 1999 to former Senator Ted Stevens in 2007 to former Senator John Edwards two years ago, prosecutors in the Justice Department often get it wrong,” Abbe Lowell, Mr. Menendez’s lawyer, said in a written statement Thursday. “These charges are the latest mistakes.”
Even though the Justice Department has botched some high-profile cases in the past, its wins within the last year should give Mr. Menendez and his lawyer pause, analysts say.
Last year, federal prosecutors accused Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, of trading favors for $140,000 in gifts.
Like Mr. Menendez’s relationship with Mr. Melgen, Mr. McDonnell also had a friendship with Jonnie Williams, the chief executive of troubled nutritional supplement company Star Scientific. Prosecutors charged Mr. McDonnell and his wife helped promote some of Star Scientific’s supplements in exchange for trips, loans and luxury watches.
Mr. McDonnell maintained his innocence, but had a difficult time disproving the accusations in court after prosecutors persuaded Mr. Williams to turn against him.
The same scenario could also happen to Mr. Menendez, analysts say.
Prosecutors will try to pressure Mr. Melgen into discussing the campaign donations, jet flights and fancy vacations he showered upon Mr. Menendez in exchange for a deal that would keep him out of the prison system or lessen the charges that have been leveled against him, said Amy Richardson, a law partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis.
Mr. Melgen, who is also facing charges of bribery and corruption, may be swayed by their argument and opt to protect himself by rolling over on Mr. Menendez.
“What they have against the doctor, it’s certainly a conversation for him,” Ms. Richardson said. “Do you want to get indicted with what evidence do we have against you? And would you like immunity, which means no jail time if you come to us and tell us what happened?”
A federal judge sentenced Mr. McDonnell to two years in prison and two years of supervised release.
After accusations first started to bubble up of an improper relationship between Mr. Menendez and Mr. Melgen in 2013, Mr. Menendez agreed to reimburse Mr. Melgen more than $58,000 for some of the flights that he accepted from the Florida doctor.
Return payments also began trickling through the Senate on Thursday.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, said through a staff assistant that she intended to return the $25,000 in campaign contributions she received from Mr. Menendez’s political action committee, The Hill reported. About a third of those funds came from Mr. Melgen.
Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is trying to pressure Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrat, to return the $10,000 donation he received from Mr. Menendez, the paper reported.