Sen. Menendez defiant after second corruption indictment: ‘Prosecutors did that the last time’

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., walks through the Senate subway on his way to a vote in the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., May 4, 2023.

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert Menendez on Friday vowed to remain in the Senate while he fights federal charges of bribery and extortion announced earlier in the day. The indictment was the second time the New Jersey Democrat had been prosecuted for alleged corruption as a sitting senator.

As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez holds one of the most powerful gavels in Congress. But any committee chair “who is charged with a felony shall immediately step aside” under Democratic caucus rules.

Menendez planned to relinquish his committee chairmanship 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.

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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 having “accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes in exchange for Senator Menendez using his power and influence to protect and to enrich” three New Jersey business associates, according to U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York, who brought the charges.

“Those bribes included cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job [for Nadine], a luxury vehicle, and other things of value,” the federal indictment alleges.

Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a press conference after announcing that U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) was indicted on corruption charges charges at the SDNY office on September 22, 2023 in New York City. 

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In response to the charges, the senator was defiant and accused prosecutors of having “misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office” and “attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had.”

This counterargument — namely that what prosecutors claim are bribes in exchange for favors were actually just personal friendships and the typical work of a U.S. senator — was the same one Menendez made the last time he was charged with corruption in 2015. In that case, the argument worked to the senator’s benefit.

Menendez was charged with 14 counts alongside co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist whom prosecutors accused of having bribed Menendez with lavish gifts in exchange for using his Senate powers to advance Melgen’s business interests.

But the jury in the case was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial in 2017.

On Friday, Menendez said prosecutors were running the same failed play a second time.

“The facts are not as presented” in the indictment, he said. “Prosecutors did that the last time and look what a trial demonstrates.”

Yet in spite of 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 assured.

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 was 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 2010 plane crash, a formal report uncovered serious misconduct by prosecutors and investigators.

At the heart of these cases is a shift in how the law distinguishes between what is a corrupt favor by an elected official and what is a legitimate “official act.”

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted of corruption in 2014, only to have his conviction overturned two years later by the Supreme Court.

In a unanimous ruling, the high court found that prosecutors had applied what justices called “a boundless” 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,'” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, the author of the 2016 opinion.

Following the McDonnell ruling, another former elected official found guilty of corruption, former U.S. 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 U.S. District Court judge threw out seven of Jefferson’s 10 charges and ordered him released in 2017 for time served.

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