Sen. Bob Menendez, DN.J., walks on the Senate subway to a vote at the Capitol, in Washington, DC, May 4, 2023.
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WASHINGTON — Sen. promised on Friday. Robert Menendez will remain in the Senate while he fights federal bribery and extortion charges announced today. The indictment is the second time the New Jersey Democrat has been prosecuted for alleged corruption as a sitting senator.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez wields one of the most powerful gavels in Congress. But any committee chairperson “charged with a felony shall immediately step aside” under Democratic caucus rules.
Menendez planned relinquish his chairmanship of the committee while he was being prosecuted, NBC News reported, but not his seat in Congress.
“I remain focused on continuing this important work and will not be distracted by baseless allegations,” Menendez said in a statement.
The senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, were indicted Friday on three criminal counts each after a multiyear federal investigation.
The couple is accused of “accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for Senator Menendez using his power and influence to protect and enrich” three New Jersey business associates, according to US Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York , who brought charges.
“Those bribes include money, goldpayments for a home mortgage, compensation for a low- or no-show job [for Nadine]a luxury vehicle, and other items of value,” the federal indictment said.
Damian Williams, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, spoke at a press conference after announcing that US Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was indicted on corruption charges in the SDNY office on September 22, 2023 in New York City.
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In response to the allegations, the senator defied and accused the prosecutors of “misrepresenting the normal work of a congressional office” and “attacked my wife for the long friendship she had.”
This counterargument — that what prosecutors say were bribes in exchange for favors were really just personal friendships and the routine work of a US senator — is the same one Menendez made the last time he was indicted on corruption charges in 2015. In that case, the argument worked to the senator’s benefit.
Menendez was indicted on 14 counts along with co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist who prosecutors accused of bribing Menendez with lavish gifts in exchange for using his power in the Senate to advance the business interests of Melgen.
But the jury in the case could not reach a unanimous verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial in 2017.
On Friday, Menendez said prosecutors were running the same botched game a second time.
“The facts are not as presented” in the indictment, he said. “Prosecutors do that one last time and see what a test shows.”
But despite damning photos released by prosecutors Friday of gold bars and stacks of $100 bills found in Menendez’s home, the convictions of New Jersey’s senior senator and his co-defendants are far from over. for sure.
Over the past two decades, several high-profile cases have raised the bar for evidence in political corruption cases against elected officials.
One of them is Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), who was charged with bribery in 2008 for accepting home renovations from an oil executive. After Stevens died in a plane crash in 2010, a the formal report found serious misconduct by prosecutors and investigators.
At the center of these cases is a change in how the law distinguishes what is a corrupt favor of an elected official and what is a legitimate “official act.”
Formerly Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted of corruption in 2014, but his conviction was only overturned two years later by the Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the high court found that prosecutors had applied what the justices called an “unbounded” definition of what constitutes an official act.
“Setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act,'” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote , the author of the 2016 opinion.
Following the McDonnell decision, another former elected official found guilty of corruption, former US Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., appealed his conviction from behind bars.
At the time, Jefferson was six years into his 13-year sentence. In light of the new precedent, a United States District Court judge threw out seven of Jefferson’s 10 cases and ordered him released in 2017 for time served.