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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he accepted nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend in exchange for a stream of political favors, and his lawyer compared the case to the government's bungled prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.
Menendez's attorney, Abbe Lowell, entered the plea on his behalf before a federal judge in Newark, one day after Menendez promised to be vindicated and declared that he's "not going anywhere."
"Prosecutors in the Justice Department often get it wrong," Lowell told reporters after the brief hearing. "These charges are the latest instance of that."
Stevens, R-Alaska, was indicted in 2008 on charges of not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of home renovations. Stevens was found guilty but the Justice Department later dismissed the case and said prosecutors withheld evidence that would have been favorable to the defense.
The indictment against Menendez alleges he used the power of his Senate seat to benefit 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.
Melgen also entered a not guilty plea, and Judge William Walls set a tentative July 13 trial date for both men.
Menendez was released without bail, while Melgen was released after posting $1.5 million bond, including 10 percent cash. Walls ordered Menendez to turn over his personal passport, but he can still travel on his official passport on Senate business.
Lowell tried to argue that Menendez should be given special consideration because of his position. "He's not any other defendant," he said.
Menendez said in a brief statement to reporters that after a three-year investigation, he looks forward to responding to the allegations on the record in court.
"These allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven false in court," Menendez said.
Melgen and his attorney left the courthouse without comment.
The investigation that led to the indictment came into public view when federal authorities raided Melgen's medical offices in 2013. It will almost certainly lead to a drawn-out legal fight between Menendez and a team of Justice Department prosecutors who have spent years investigating his ties to Melgen.
It will require prosecutors to prove that a close and longtime friendship between the men was used for criminal purposes, and it is likely to revive the legal debate about the constitutional protections afforded to members of Congress for acts they take in office.
The criminal charges brought Wednesday 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.
Menendez said he would temporarily step aside from his role as top Democrat on the committee but appeared more defiant than ever at a hastily called news conference Wednesday that felt more like a political rally, with enthusiastic supporters cheering him on.
"I am not going anywhere," Menendez told reporters. "I'm angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service and my entire life."
The news was met with what appeared to be a coordinated round of supportive statements from national and New Jersey Democrats who rallied around the senator.
"Bob Menendez is one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state. I am confident he will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead," said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
But the indictment also raised questions about other money Melgen has contributed. An aide to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said Wednesday night that she would return campaign contributions she received from Melgen as well as from Menendez. Klobuchar matches the description of a lawmaker called "Senator 1" in the indictment, though she was not accused of wrongdoing.
The indictment from a grand jury in Newark contains 14 counts — including bribery, conspiracy and false statements — against Menendez and charges Melgen, a political donor to Menendez and other Democrats. Menendez had already acknowledged that he had taken several round-trip flights to the Dominican Republic on Melgen's luxury jet that, initially, were not properly reimbursed. But the document spells out many additional gifts, such as a Paris hotel stay and access to a Dominican resort, that prosecutors say were never reported on financial disclosure forms.
In exchange for those and other gifts, prosecutors allege, Menendez sought to smooth approval of the visa application process for several of Melgen's foreign girlfriends, worked to protect a lucrative contract Melgen held to provide cargo screening services to the Dominican Republic and intervened on the doctor's behalf in a Medicare billing dispute worth millions of dollars.
In 2013, in an email exchange one day after Melgen and Menendez had golfed together in Florida, Menendez told a staffer to contact U.S. Customs and Border Protection to stop them from donating shipping container monitoring and surveillance equipment to the Dominican Republic, according to the indictment. Melgen had a contract to provide exclusive cargo screening services in Dominican ports, and the Customs and Border Protection plan would have hurt his financial interests, prosecutors say.
In advocating for Melgen's business interests, prosecutors say, Menendez pursued meetings with the heads of executive agencies and tried to solicit the help of other U.S. senators.
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 the interactions he had with the doctor were reflections of a close friendship dating two decades.