Newark, N.J. -- Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges at a federal court here on Thursday after being charged with accepting nearly $1 million in luxury gifts and campaign donations.
The Democrat on Thursday afternoon said that the allegations are "based on smears," reiterating that he will fight the 14 criminal counts -- including eight for bribery -- tooth and nail.
"For nearly three years, the Justice Department has pursued allegations based on smears launched by political opponents trying to silence me," Menendez said. "Now they have laid out their case ... we will finally have an opportunity to respond on the record, in court with the facts."
Abbe Lowell, Senator Menendez's attorney, said he asked the Justice Department to investigate the "misconduct," adding that "I can only hope that they'll do so with as much vigor and as many resources as they've applied to the investigation of Senator Menendez."
The charges stem from his relationship with friend and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen from 2006 to 2013. Prosecutors allege Menendez accepted vacations, private plane rides, golf trips and contributions to a legal defense fund in exchange for the senator’s help to influence the outcome of a Medicare billing dispute, helping several of Melgen’s girlfriends with visas and more.
Menendez, who was elected in 2006 and won re-election in 2012, said on Wednesday that he is stepping down as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Democratic minority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, said, in a statement that he appreciates Menendez’s willingness to temporarily step down as ranking member. He has been a consistent champion for the middle class. As I have said about both Democrats and Republicans, our justice system is premised on the principle of innocent until proven guilty and Senator Menendez should not be judged until he has his day in court.”
Sen. Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey, offered his support to Menendez in a statement on Wednesday.
“Senator Menendez has never wavered in his commitment to the people of New Jersey. He’s been an invaluable resource and a mentor to me since I arrived in the Senate,” Booker said. “Our system of justice is designed to be fair and impartial, and it presumes innocence before guilt. I won’t waver in my commitment to stand alongside my senior Senator to serve our great state. Our nation and state face critical issues and I will continue to partner with Senator Menendez to take on the challenges before us.”
Menendez has played a key role on foreign affairs issues, especially on U.S. policy on Iran and Cuba, oftentimes butting heads with the Obama Administration. He also could provide a crucial vote in the ongoing Senate battle to confirm attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.
The FBI began to probe Menendez in 2012 alleging his involvement in a underage prostitution ring while at Melgen’s home in the Dominican Republican, claims which later was proven erroneous.
In 2013, the senator ended up shelling out $58,500 to reimburse Melgen for two flights, which he insisted was an oversight. The following year, he reimbursed his friend for a third flight.
The senator has argued that his friendship with Melgen is being twisted by his political opponents. “I’m angry and ready to fight,” he said on Wednesday.