By ERIC TUCKER and SEAN CARLIN
WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who rose to become one of the highest-ranking Hispanic members of Congress, was charged Wednesday with accepting nearly $1 million worth of gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend in exchange for a stream of political favors on the donor’s behalf.
A federal grand jury indictment accuses the New Jersey Democrat of using the power of his Senate seat to benefit Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor who prosecutors say provided the senator with luxury vacations, airline travel, golf trips and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund.
The indictment from a federal grand jury in Newark charged the senator with 14 counts, including bribery, conspiracy and false statements, over his ties to Melgen. Melgen also was charged in the case.
The criminal charges cloud the political future of the top Democrat — and former chairman — of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has played a leading role on Capitol Hill on matters involving Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. efforts to improve ties with Cuba. A person familiar with Menendez’s situation, who was not authorized to discuss the senator’s plans publicly, said Menendez would voluntarily and temporarily step aside from his role as top Democrat on the committee.
Menendez, who has repeatedly asserted his innocence, was expected to make a statement later Wednesday in New Jersey. Melgen’s attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
The indictment could lead to a drawn-out legal fight between Menendez and a team of Justice Department corruption prosecutors who have spent the last two years investigating his ties to Melgen. The dispute will require prosecutors to establish that a close and longtime friendship between the men was used for illicit purposes and is likely to present questions about whether Menendez is shielded by the Constitution from prosecution over the legislative acts he performed.
The indictment from a grand jury in his home state was the latest development in a federal investigation that came into public view when federal authorities raided Melgen’s medical offices in 2013. It depicts a relationship in which gifts such as round-trip flights to the Dominican Republican were quietly traded for favors such as political intervention in medical billing and contractual disputes.
Among the allegations is that Melgen provided Menendez with free trips to the Dominican Republican aboard his luxury jet and that the senator, between 2007 and 2012, never disclosed the gifts he received from the doctor.
In exchange for those and other gifts, prosecutors say, Menendez tried to influence immigration proceedings of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, sought to protect a lucrative contract Melgen held to provide cargo screening services to the Dominican Republic and intervened in a Medicare billing dispute on the doctor’s behalf worth millions of dollars.
Menendez has acknowledged taking actions that could benefit Melgen, among them contacting U.S. health agencies to ask about billing practices and policies. But the lawmaker has said he did nothing wrong and that the interactions he had with the doctor are reflections of a friendship of two decades.
“We celebrated holidays together,” he once told reporters. “We have been there for family weddings and sad times like funerals and have given each other birthday, holiday and wedding presents, just as friends do.”
Melgen came under renewed scrutiny when government data last year showed he had received more in Medicare reimbursements in 2012 than any other doctor in the country.
According to the Senate Historical Office, Menendez is the 12th senator to be indicted and the first since the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was indicted in 2008 on charges of not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of home renovations. Stevens was convicted but the charges were later dismissed.
Menendez is also the second New Jersey senator to be indicted. Harrison Williams Jr., a Democrat, was indicted in 1980 on corruption charges and convicted of bribery and other counts the following year. Williams resigned before the Senate could vote on whether to expel him.
Menendez, 61, joined the Senate in 2006 after serving more than a decade in the House of Representatives. A lawyer and former mayor of Union City, New Jersey, Menendez also served in the New Jersey General Assembly and state Senate.
Associated Press writers Sean Carlin in Newark and Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.
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