Sen. Robert Menendez appeared in New Jersey federal court for the first time to fight corruption charges by prosecutors he claims have twisted a friendship with a donor into an indictment.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, was charged Wednesday with illegally using his Senate post to help the donor get visas for girlfriends, and to resolve separate business disputes with the U.S. and Dominican governments. The donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, also was charged and appeared in court Thursday.
Menendez, 61, denies charges he took more than $1 million in gifts and campaign donations in return for helping Melgen. He disputes allegations he improperly helped Melgen try to resolve U.S. claims the doctor overbilled Medicare by $8.9 million. And the senator rejected charges he illegally aided an effort by Melgen’s company to provide port security services in the Dominican Republican.
“I’m angry and ready to fight,” Menendez said Wednesday night. “I’m angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator, and my friendship, into something that is improper.”
Both men are charged with conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud and violating the Travel Act. Menendez also is charged with making false statements.
They appeared in federal court in Newark Thursday before U.S. District Judge William Walls, who advised them of the charges. Lawyers for both Menendez and Melgen pleaded not guilty on behalf of their clients. Walls set a tentative trial date of July 13.
Menendez may face pressure to resign, and he’s stepping down temporarily as senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At his appearance in a Newark hotel Wednesday, Menendez said he has no plans to quit the Senate. He said he will fight, “no matter how long it takes to clear my good name.”
Menendez is the 12th senator charged with a crime while in office, and the first since Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who was found guilty in 2008 of seven corruption-related felonies. The verdict was set aside in 2009 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Stevens was killed in a 2010 plane crash.
The indictment details 18 airplane trips that Melgen gave to Menendez and his guests, including on the doctor’s private jet to his ocean-side estate in the Dominican Republic, Casa de Campo.
Menendez used Melgen’s American Express rewards points to cover a weekend stay at a five-star Paris hotel, according to the U.S. Before the trip, Menendez e-mailed his preference for a “king bed, work area with Internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower,” according to the indictment.
The senator and his staff also helped with the visa applications for three Melgen girlfriends -- one a Brazilian model and lawyer, one a Dominican model and another a Ukrainian model, the U.S. says.
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