Justice Dept set to charge NJ Senator Menendez with corruption

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) (Reuters / Kevin Lamarque)
An influential US senator will face federal corruption charges, concluding a two-year investigation into Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), which has scrutinized a Florida eye doctor, underage prostitutes and accusations against the Cuban government.

Department of Justice prosecutors accuse Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey and the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, used his powerful position to advance the business interests of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a close friend and financial benefactor, in exchange for gifts, several media outlets reported Friday afternoon. Attorney General Eric Holder has signed off on the requested charges, according to CNN.

In a statement to the press, Menendez described Melgen as a friend but denied breaking the law, insisting he would remain in office.

"Let me be very clear, very clear: I have always conducted myself appropriately and with accordance with the law," he said. "Every action that I and my office have taken ... has been based on pursuing the best policy for the people of New Jersey and this entire country."

"I am not going anywhere."

The senator has consistently denied wrongdoing since the investigation became public in 2013.

"As we have said before, we believe all of Senator's actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that," Menendez spokesperson Tricia Enright said in a statement Friday. "Any actions taken by Senator Menendez or his office have been to appropriately address public policy issues and not for any other reason."

The investigation began in the fall of 2012, when Menendez was running for reelection. A scandal erupted days before the vote, when he was accused of “inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes” on a 2010 trip to the Dominican Republic. Conservative news site the Daily Caller broke the story after GOP political operatives set up several Skype interviews with several women in the Dominican Republic who claimed the senator had paid them for sex.

According to the anonymous tip that launched the probe, Melgen provided the underage women, as well as free flights on his private plane, the Washington Post reported. The women later recanted their stories about meeting Menendez on the 2010 trip.

The New Jersey lawmaker vehemently denied that he employed any sex workers in the Dominican, and accused the Cuban government of hatching a plot to derail his political career; as the son of Cuban immigrants, he is one of several key Latinos in Congress aligned against any relaxation of the embargo on the island-nation.

Despite the women changing their stories, the FBI continued to investigate Menendez’s relationship with the Florida opthamologist.

The investigation began to focus on whether the senator intervened on Melgen’s behalf, asking Medicare to change its reimbursement policies that benefited the eye doctor to the tune of $8.9 million, money that he has since repaid, according to Politico.

Melgen was accused of overbilling the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for his reimbursement for the drug Lucentis, a costly medication used to treat macular degeneration. During the billing dispute ‒ in 2009 and in 2012 ‒ Menendez urged the government agency to change its policy, which he said he considered to be unfair, the New York Times reported.

”The bottom line is, we raised concerns with CMS over policy and over ambiguities that are difficult for medical providers to understand and to seek a clarification of that and to make sure, in doing so, providers would understand how to attain themselves,” Menendez told the Associated Press in 2013.

In 2013, Menendez paid Melgen back $58,000 in return for the 2010 plane trips, and called his failure to disclose the flights ‒ as required by federal ethics laws ‒ an “oversight.” Along with the flights, the Florida doctor donated heavily to the senator’s campaign coffers, including $700,000 to a Democratic super PAC (political action committee) that spent heavily on Menendez’s 2012 reelection bid.

Prosecutors are also looking into whether the senator illegally advocated for Melgen in the Dominican Republic, where the opthamologist had a government contract for port screening equipment, CNN reported. When the US government was considering donating similar technology to the Caribbean nation, Menendez told both the State Department and the Commerce Department that the Dominican government was trying to get out of a contract with an unnamed American company that authorities there “[didn’t] want to live by.”

Melgen’s relationship with the senator isn’t the only one that might be mentioned in the government’s corruption charges against Menendez. The FBI also investigated his ties to the Isaias family. Brothers Roberto and William were banking magnates in Ecuador when they fled to the US after they were accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from the country’s largest bank before it collapsed, Politico reported. The New Jersey lawmaker is accused of illegally helping the brothers gain permanent residency while fighting their extradition cases, according to CNN. Menendez also assisted Roberto’s daughter Estefania with visa problems.

The Isaias family donated $10,000 to Menendez’s 2012 Senate campaign and more than $100,000 to the Democratic Party. The senator served as the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ‒ the party’s chief fundraiser for upper chamber candidates ‒ from 2009 to 2011.

If Menendez is unable to remain in office due to the corruption charges, it is unclear who might replace him, the Washington Post reported. New Jersey Democrats are focusing on winning the governorship when current Gov. Chris Christie (R) leaves office in 2017, and members of the state’s delegation in the House are not likely to run for the Senate seat.