Sen. Robert Menendez, a powerful force on Capitol Hill and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was charged Wednesday with receiving nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend and benefactor in exchange for using his Senate office to help the Florida man's business and personal interests.
The bribery and conspiracy charges, long-awaited after questions surfaced about his dealings with Dr. Salomon Melgen of West Palm Beach, Fla., marks the first time since 2008 that a sitting senator has faced criminal charges. A federal grand jury in his home state of New Jersey filed the indictment Wednesday.
Menendez and Melgen, both 61, were each charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud.
Menendez was also charged with one count of making false statements.
A senator since 2006, Menendez vigorously denied any wrongdoing Wednesday and said he would be vindicated.
Approaching the podium to raucous cheers from a group of supporters in Newark, N.J., Menendez dismissed the indictment as a political maneuver.
"For nearly three years, I've lived under a Justice Department cloud, and today I'm outraged that this cloud has not been lifted," he said.
"I'm outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me, but I will not be silenced," he said. "I'm confident, at the end of the day, I will be vindicated and they will be exposed."
Menendez did not take questions, but said federal prosecutors misunderstood his relationship with Melgen.
"Prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption," he said.
"I am not going anywhere. I'm angry and ready to fight, because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life," Menendez said.
Later Wednesday, Menendez said in a statement that he would temporarily step down as ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even though there was no rule requiring him to do so.
"I believe it is in the best interests of the committee, my colleagues, and the Senate, which is why I have chosen to do so," his statement said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he appreciated Menendez's decision and called him "a consistent champion for the middle class."
"As I have said about both Democrats and Republicans, our justice system is premised on the principle of innocent until proven guilty and Sen. Menendez should not be judged until he has his day in court," Reid said.
According to the indictment, between January 2006 and January 2013 Menendez accepted close to $1 million in "lavish gifts and campaign contributions" from Melgen in exchange for helping Melgen in contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to the doctor.
The senator also "took active steps" to support the visa applications of several of Melgen's girlfriends and one of their sisters, prosecutors said.
Specifically, the indictment alleged that Menendez accepted flights on Melgen's private jet as well as a first-class commercial flight and a flight on a chartered jet; that he took numerous vacations at Melgen's Caribbean villa in the Dominican Republic and at a hotel in Paris; and that he accepted $40,000 in contributions to his legal defense fund and more than $750,000 in campaign donations.
The indictment charged that Menendez never disclosed any of the reportable gifts that he received from Melgen on his financial disclosure forms.
At the same time, the indictment said Menendez engaged in three efforts to use his Senate office and staff to boost Melgen's personal and financial interests.
Menendez is accused of pressuring U.S. agencies so Melgen could win an exclusive contract to provide security screening of containers arriving at Dominican Republic ports. The indictment also accuses Menendez of advocating on Melgen's behalf in his Medicare billing dispute worth about $8.9 million.
Menendez allegedly engaged in advocacy for Melgen "all the way up to the highest levels of the U.S. government," prosecutors said, including meeting with a Cabinet secretary, contacting a U.S. ambassador, meeting with the heads of executive agencies and other senior executive officials, and soliciting other senators for help too.
"Government corruption -- at any level of elected office -- corrodes the public trust and weakens our democratic system," Assistant Atty. Gen. Leslie Caldwell said in describing the case.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard M. Frankel of the Newark office said, "The citizens of New Jersey have the right to demand honest, unbiased service and representation from their elected officials at all levels of government."
The 22-count, 68-page indictment states that "the purpose of the conspiracy was for the defendants to use Menendez's official position as a United States senator to benefit and enrich themselves through bribery."
Menendez is accused of spending vacations at Melgen's Caribbean Villa at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, and of taking up to $5,000 in Melgen's American Express card points for three nights in a suite at the five-star Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome hotel. "Menendez planned the personal trip to Paris to spend a weekend with a woman with whom he had a personal relationship," the indictment said. He also allegedly booked a separate room for the woman's sister.
Sometimes Menendez would simply email Melgen asking for high-end room accommodations, the indictment said.
Melgen and his wife wrote $40,000 in checks to Menendez's legal defense fund during a recall campaign in 2011, the charges said. Menendez also hit up Melgen and his family for another $40,000 for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
Melgen, one Menendez staffer observed, had "been as loyal and helpful as anyone out there."
Other individual fundraisers and donors also started chipping in, often saying that Melgen had asked them to contribute to Menendez's political coffers, the indictment said. Later Melgen gave an additional $600,000 to Menendez's political action committees.
But, the indictment said, Menendez "did not disclose any of the reportable gifts he received from Melgen."
In the matter of getting visas cleared for Melgen's girlfriends, one of them wrote the doctor in 2008 thanking him for getting Menendez's help. "Hello my love," she began. "I write to remind you that you need to send me a copy of what Senator Bob Menendez's office sent you, which I need for the embassy. And also remember the bank thing please. Thank you. A kiss."
One of the girlfriends was described as an "actress, model and lawyer" from Brazil.
The indictment also described in detail efforts by Menendez and his staff to help Melgen beat the overbilling charges and win the port contract in the Dominican Republic. It described the senator personally lobbying other government officials on the doctor's behalf.
Melanie Sloan, the former executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the indictment made a strong case but would face some significant legal hurdles.
"It's an aggressive indictment," Sloan said. "There is a lot of really seedy stuff."
But Sloan said she was surprised that the Justice Department had alleged that thousands of dollars in campaign contributions were meant as bribes.
"The Justice Department is generally loath to make that case, because it's frankly an indictment of our whole system," said Sloan, who filed an ethics complaint against Menendez in 2012 while heading the Washington-based advocacy group.
The case now becomes one of the biggest prosecutions by the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section since its botched handling of the trial of then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) seven years ago.
Menendez is not required to resign his seat due to the indictment, according to Senate experts.
The biggest immediate problem for Democrats will be the increasingly endangered nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general, which the White House now fears is in jeopardy.
Menendez has indicated he might have to abstain from voting on an attorney general nominee who would be overseeing his prosecution. That leaves the Obama administration one vote short, unless one of several wavering Republicans decides to back her.
Menendez has played a prominent role in opposing President Obama's efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. While Menendez helped stave off a vote earlier this year on proposals to apply new sanctions to Iran, he has vowed to help rally Democratic support for a veto override should the president reject a pending bill that would toughen sanctions if negotiations fail.
"I don't see something like this having any impact at all on the Iran issue," said former top Senate aide James P. Manley. "This issue is much larger than one senator, and members in the end are going to vote their conscience." There appear to be enough votes for an override, Manley said.
"When it comes to the Lynch nomination, that could get dicier depending on how Sen. Menendez decides to play it," Manley said.
Menendez's clout as a senior Democrat in the Senate leadership could diminish if other senators try to distance themselves. But many Democrats, including fellow New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker -- and some national Latino advocates -- are rallying in support of Menendez, a fixture in state politics and a leader in congressional efforts to overhaul immigration law.
After the indictment was announced, Frank Sharry of America's Voice, which lobbies for immigration reform, praised Menendez. "He has been a tireless fighter for immigrants and immigration reform," Sharry said. "He has been relentless and effective."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Menendez "one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state."
But Republicans pounced on the indictment.
"Sen. Menendez has betrayed the trust of New Jersey families," said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Andrea Bozek. "His actions reinforce all that the American people believe is wrong with Washington Democrats and closes the book on a Senate Democrat majority that put their personal interests ahead of the American people."
Eleven other senators have been indicted in the institution's history, said Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie. Four have been convicted, but two of those convictions were overturned, including Stevens'.
Ritchie says there is no legal requirement and no precedent for a senator to step down after an indictment. The last senator to serve time in prison, he said, was one of Menendez's predecessors from New Jersey, Democrat Harrison Williams. He served 21 months on charges resulting from the Abscam bribery investigation.
If a senator is convicted, however, the Senate is likely to begin expulsion proceedings, Ritchie said.
Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) resigned in 1995 after he was accused of sexual harassment and threatened with expulsion by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The Menendez prosecution is seen as a major test of the Public Integrity Section, whose last two high-profile cases, against Stevens and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), ended in defeat.
After the Stevens case in 2009, the section was given new leadership and reoriented toward local and state officials.
A failure to win a conviction against Menendez could further damage the unit's reputation and its ability to bring big federal cases.
On Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT