NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal corruption and bribery charges.
Menendez and Melgen were indicted Wednesday in a 68-page document that alleges Menendez advocated for Melgen's interests in exchange for travel and political and legal-defense contributions. Menendez and his attorney, Abbe Lowell, said after his initial court appearance Thursday that prosecutors were wrong and they intend to prove it in court.
Where the case stands:
Prosecutors allege that Menendez advocated for Melgen's interests — including helping his foreign girlfriends obtain visas — in exchange for travel, a stay in Paris and access to resorts.
Menendez is also accused of pushing the State Department to intervene in a contract dispute involving a business Melgen owned in the Dominican Republic. The company had a contract to operate X-ray equipment to inspect shipping containers. The indictment says Menendez met with an assistant secretary of state to advocate for Melgen's interests and, on the same day, Melgen and his family donated $40,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee's federal election account and $20,000 to Menendez's legal defense fund.
The indictment also alleges that Menendez advocated for the doctor in a Medicare billing dispute. Officials say Melgen's practice owed nearly $9 million for overpayments.
NOT GUILTY PLEAS
Menendez and Melgen pleaded not guilty to all charges against them Thursday. Menendez and Melgen sat silently during their initial court appearance and, after the hearing, Menendez told reporters that he's looking forward to arguing the case on the record after a yearslong investigation.
The senator's attorney said the investigation started with "false and salacious allegations" by political opponents and was "fueled by heavy-handed" agents who "pressured" witnesses. He complained about "improper leaks" and asked the Justice Department to investigate his claims with the same "vigor" they applied to Menendez's investigation.
Though prosecutors allege Menendez used his power to advocate for Melgen's interests in return for gifts and contributions, Lowell says the burden is now on the Justice Department to prove that their friendship of two decades was a "corrupt relationship." Menendez said after the indictment was handed down that he was angry that prosecutors didn'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."
COMPARISON TO PREVIOUS CASES
Lowell pointed to the failed prosecutions of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and compared those cases to Menendez's. Stevens, R-Alaska, was found guilty on charges of not reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of home renovations, but the Justice Department later dismissed the case. Edwards, D-North Carolina, was charged with campaign contribution violations in 2011, but was found not guilty on one count and a mistrial was declared on five others.
Because Sen. Menendez's actions were "proper," Lowell said the case would become another of those "mistaken cases" brought by the Justice Department.