WASHINGTON – New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of corruption and bribery.
A Newark grand jury indicted the 61-year-old senator Wednesday on 14 counts of federal corruption in a 68-page indictment.
Menendez has been released on his own recognizance but was forced to surrender his personal passport.
A status conference has been scheduled for April 23, with a tentative July 13 trial date.
Menendez’s friend, Dr. Salomon Melgen, was indicted on 13 counts, including eight bribery charges. Melgen also pleaded not guilty.
The case revolves around alleged gifts and favors Melgen did for the senator, who in turn allegedly helped out the wealthy Florida doctor on several occasions.
The indictments against Menendez and Melgen will likely result in a drawn-out court battle between them and a team of federal prosecutors who have spent years building their case against the two men. Menendez, who is a powerful Capitol Hill Democrat and a leading critic of the Obama administration's Cuba and Iran policies, vowed to fight.
“At the end of the day, I will be vindicated and they will be exposed,” Menendez said at a Wednesday press conference. “This is not how my political career is going to end. I am angry and ready to fight. I am not going anywhere.”
Pricey trips, private planes and young foreign models are all at the heart of the federal criminal case. Prior to the release of the indictment, what was known about the case centered on favors Menendez allegedly did for Melgen concerning his business dealings.
But the indictment also claims the senator helped Melgen’s international girlfriends gain entry to the United States. Court records detail extracurricular activities that include the use of a Caribbean villa, luxury hotel stays in Paris but perhaps most salacious, using political power to secure visas for three of those girlfriends, as well as the visa application of the younger sister of one of Melgen’s girlfriends.
“Throughout these efforts, Menendez allegedly engaged in advocacy for Melgen all the way up to the highest level of the U.S. government, including meeting with a U.S. cabinet secretary, contacting a U.S. ambassador, meeting with the heads of executive agencies and other senior executive officials and soliciting other U.S. senators, all in order to assist Melgen’s personal and pecuniary interests,” the government claims.
According to the indictment, in 2007 Melgen's then-girlfriend, a Brazilian national who worked as an actress, model and lawyer, wanted to go to graduate school at the University of Miami near where Melgen lived. The school required her to obtain a student visa. On July 24, 2008, the day before her visa application appointment in Brazil, Menendez’s senior policy adviser allegedly emailed the deputy assistant secretary at Visa Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs:
“The senator asked me to get in touch with you about the following visa applicant. If it is helpful, I can send over a signed letter from the Senator with the details. Thank you for your help with anything you can do to facilitate the following application.”
The email goes on to state: “Sen. Menendez would like to advocate unconditionally for Dr. Melgen and encourage careful consideration of (the girlfriend’s) visa application.”
One day later, the visa was approved. Another email was sent from Menendez’s office: “Thanks a lot (DAS), the senator very much appreciates your help.”
During another incident in October 2008, Melgen asked for Menendez’s help in getting a tourist visa for another girlfriend, a Dominican model, 21, and her sister, 18. Menendez’s office sent a “general letter of support” from the senator on behalf of the two sisters. He also pledged a follow-up call.
On Oct. 28, 2008, the girlfriend emailed Melgen to ask for a copy of the letter the senator’s office sent.
Her email, according to the indictment, reads:
“Hello my love, I write to remind you that you need to send me a copy of what Senator Bob Menendez’s office sent you, which I need for the embassy. And also remember the bank thing please. Thank you. A kiss.”
The United States Embassy in the Dominican Republic initially denied the visa requests because the women lacked children, cash and employment.
When told the visas were denied, Menendez reportedly said, “I would like to call Ambassador tomorrow and get a reconsideration or possibly our contact at State. Thanks.”
The staffer wrote back to Menendez asking if the senator would rather wait for the outcome of a follow-up letter or call the ambassador immediately.
Menendez responded, “Call ambassador asap.”
The girlfriend and her sister had both of their visas approved.
Two staffers from Menendez’s office discussed the deal via email, according to the indictment.
“2 people from the DR who wants visas to visit Dr. Melgem (sic) GOT THEM,” one staffer wrote.
Another staffer replied, “In my view, this is ONLY DUE to the fact that RM intervened. I’ve told RM.”
Menendez’s staff also reportedly drafted a letter in 2007 on behalf of a Ukrainian model living in Spain. She wanted to come to the U.S. to visit Melgen as well as for plastic surgery, according to the indictment.
“Dr. Melgen is a person of the highest caliber,” according to the letter sent to the consul general. “He is a fine citizen and held in high esteem by his peers.”
Fox News' Nicole Busch contributed to this report.