Dem Sen. Menendez 'severely admonished' by Senate ethics committee, told to repay gifts

The Senate Ethics Committee on Thursday “severely admonished” New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez for accepting gifts over a six-year period from a wealthy donor, saying his actions brought “discredit upon the Senate.”

The committee’s six Republicans and Democrats wrote a joint Thursday letter to Menendez faulting him for accepting gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist.

“Notably, you have not disputed the fact that you accepted numerous gifts from Dr. Melgen and took official actions related to his interests,” the committee wrote in its letter.

Menendez went on trial last year in federal court on bribery charges, but a jury could not reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared. Still, the committee said it determined Menendez’s conduct “violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct.”

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“You demonstrated disregard for these standards by placing your Senate office in Dr. Melgen's service at the same time you repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value from him,” the senators wrote.

The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Pat Roberts of Kansas and James Risch of Idaho. It was also signed by Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

“Your assistance to Dr. Melgen under these circumstances demonstrated poor judgment, and it risked undermining the public's confidence in the Senate," the letter said. "As such, your actions reflected discredit upon the Senate.”

The letter directs Menendez to repay “the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already repaid.”

The committee said it began its review of Menendez in late 2012, though halted it during the DOJ’s investigation. The committee resumed its probe of Menendez after the trial in November 2017.

Federal prosecutors announced in January they will not retry Menendez on bribery and corruption charges – something Menendez celebrated at the time.

“From the very beginning, I never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail,” Menendez said in a statement. “I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to re-evaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion.”

The mistrial was seen as a major victory for Menendez and a blow to the Justice Department, whose efforts to go after politicians in recent years often have not been successful.

Menendez is up for re-election to the U.S. Senate this year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had called on the Ethics Committee to investigate Menendez for possible violations of the public trust and the Senate code of conduct.

The case against Menendez marked the first time in almost a decade that a sitting U.S. senator faced a federal bribery charge.

According to the criminal complaint, Menendez greased wheels for Melgen.

Among other things, Menendez was accused of helping obtain visas for several of Melgen’s girlfriends as well as lobbying the State Department on his behalf regarding a $500 million port security contract in the Dominican Republic.

Melgen, in turn, paid for private jets, hotel rooms and forked over nearly $75,000 in campaign contributions to Menendez. 

The defense argued that the gifts were not bribes, but tokens of friendship between two men who were "like brothers."

In Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell's closing argument, he used the words "friend," "friends" or "friendship" more than 80 times.

Fox News’ Barnini Chakraborty contributed to this report.

Alex Pappas is a politics reporter at FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexPappas.