Criminal Justice

NJ senator pleads not guilty to federal corruption charges

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U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges and promised to clear his name.

Menendez entered his plea on Thursday in Newark federal district court, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Menendez, who is represented by Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne & Parke, asserted his innocence and ruled out resigning his seat. Menendez’s appearance came one day after he was indicted on 14 counts of corruption in connection with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and political donor.

Melgen, who was also indicted, is accused of bribing Menendez with gifts, including use of private jets and a Caribbean villa, as well as donations to Menendez’s legal defense fund. Federal prosecutors have alleged that Menendez used his clout to promote Melgen’s personal, political and business interests. One allegation, for instance, is that the senator helped secure visas for Melgen’s various girlfriends. Menendez is also accused of not disclosing those gifts.

“These allegations are false, and I am confident they will be proven false,” Menendez told reporters outside the federal courthouse after his arraignment. “I look forward to doing so in court.”

Lowell, who has represented a “who’s who” of politicians facing criminal charges, compared the Menendez indictment to a previous Department of Justice criminal case against U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska. Stevens was convicted in 2008 of financial misconduct, but the verdict was set aside and the indictment was dismissed after prosecutors were found to have suppressed evidence.

“Prosecutors at the Justice Department often get it wrong,” said Lowell, who has represented Gary Condit, John Edwards, Dan Rostenkowski, and Jack Abramoff, among others. “These charges are the latest mistakes.”

Menendez spent 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before being appointed by Gov. Jon Corzine to finish Corzine’s Senate term in 2006. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2015 until Republicans won the majority in the 2014 elections. Menendez has been under investigation since 2013, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Melgen’s office in Florida. He also became New Jersey’s senior senator that same year following the death of colleague Frank Lautenberg.

Menendez has vowed not to resign, although he agreed to give up his spot as ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

According to the National Journal, Menendez is the 12th sitting U.S. senator to be indicted–and the second to hail from New Jersey. In 1980, Senator Harrison Williams, a Democrat from New Jersey, was indicted for taking bribes in connection with the ABSCAM scandal. Williams was convicted the following year.

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