WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Menendez was indicted on corruption charges Wednesday, accused of using his office to improperly benefit a Florida eye doctor and political donor.
The indictment charged the New Jersey Democrat with 14 counts, including bribery and conspiracy, over his ties to Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy doctor and the politician's longtime friend.
Melgen also was charged in the case.
The indictment from a grand jury in New Jersey was the latest development in a federal investigation that came into public view when federal authorities raided Melgen's medical offices two years ago. The investigation focused on whether the senator had improperly advocated on Melgen's behalf, including by intervening in a Medicare billing dispute.
In a statement issued soon after the announcement, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) called Menendez a friend.
“Bob Menendez has never given me any reason to question his integrity, his dedication to honest public service or his commitment to the American people. As a leader in the House and in the Senate, he has been a key ally in fighting for sensible immigration reform and a touchstone for all matters related to Latinos in this country.
"He is a friend who is quick with advice, encouragement and good ideas. I am particularly proud of his leadership on foreign policy matters related to Latin America."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that it appreciates its long standing partnership with Senator Bob Menendez, who just last week attended the chamber's Legislative Summit in Washington, DC.
“Throughout his career, Senator Menendez has devoted his time and energy to ensuring Hispanic entrepreneurs have a voice in America’s policy debates. As the highest-ranking Latino in Congress, he has continuously broken glass ceilings and prioritized the importance of inclusion at all levels of government and the private sector," said the USHCC attributed to its president and CEO, Javier Palomarez.
Menendez has acknowledged that he flew multiple times on Melgen's private jet to the Dominican Republic and initially failed to properly pay for the trips. Menendez in 2013 agreed to reimburse Melgen $58,500 for the full cost of two flights.
The senator's office later disclosed another flight, from Florida to New Jersey in 2011, and said Menendez had repaid Melgen $11,250 for it.
Last year, Menendez disclosed that his campaign accounts had paid a law firm $250,000 for legal costs related to investigations by the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee of his ties to Melgen.
Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 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 he and Melgen have been friends for 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.
Menendez becomes the first sitting U.S. senator to face indictment since then-Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in 2008. Stevens was found guilty of concealing gifts from donors on financial disclosure statements, but the Justice Department later dropped the case after admitting that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that would have been favorable to his defense.
Menedez 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.
Even while under federal investigation, he has used his leadership position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to criticize negotiations between President Barack Obama's administration and Iran on its nuclear program and has been outspoken in opposition to normalizing relations with Cuba.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.