The Justice Department is likely to file criminal charges against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) for allegedly using his office to help a contributor, according to two sources familiar with the case.
Menendez has been the subject of an investigation for two years centering on his relationship with Dr. Salomon Melgen, a South Florida ophthalmologist.
Menendez acknowledged in 2013 that he flew on Melgen's jet without reporting the flights as gifts on a financial disclosure form, calling it an “oversight.” After media reports and ethics complaints, Menendez wrote Melgen a check for $58,500 to cover the cost of the flights.
Now the investigation is coming to a close, according to a source with knowledge of the case, who didn't not want to be identified speaking about the matter before it was announced. A Justice Department spokesman declined to confirm that, however, saying no charges were likely “in the near future.”
“Let me be very clear — very clear — that I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law,” Menendez said at a news conference in Newark, N.J., on Friday.
He said that he and Melgen had been friends for more than two decades and have exchanged gifts at holidays. “Anyone who knows me knows I fight for the things I believe are important,” he said. “That's who I am, and I am not going anywhere.”
He read his statement in English and Spanish and then left without taking questions, saying he couldn't say more because of the pending investigation.
The possible charges were first reported Friday by CNN.
Tricia Enright, communications director for Menendez, said in a statement Friday: “As we have said before, we believe all of the senator's actions have been appropriate and lawful and the facts will ultimately confirm that. Any actions taken by Sen. Menendez or his office have been to appropriately address public policy issues and not for any other reason.”
A law enforcement official confirmed that criminal charges were expected, but said no action was imminent because prosecutors have been hamstrung by attempts to compel members of the Menendez staff to discuss a series of phone calls the senator allegedly exchanged with federal Medicare and Medicaid officials on behalf of Melgen. At that time in 2012, the doctor was locked in a dispute with government officials who alleged he was overbilling Medicare and Medicaid.
Melgen, one of the nation's top-billing ophthalmologists, was paid $21 million from Medicare and Medicaid in 2012, more than any other doctor in the country. He eventually became the subject of a fraud investigation, with the FBI raiding his medical offices in 2013. He has not been charged in that investigation.
The official added that the senator also allegedly met with Kathleen Sebelius, then secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then the Senate majority leader, on Melgen's behalf.
The phone calls and the meetings were mentioned, inadvertently, in a sealed court filing in New Jersey. Before they were taken down, copies were made by the New Jersey Law Journal, which then reported on the documents.
The law enforcement official said the Menendez staff members were fighting any attempts to be compelled to talk to authorities or a grand jury, citing the separation of powers between Congress and the administration.
“It's a branches-of-government thing,” the official said, speaking anonymously because the investigation is still underway. “But we're pushing ahead.”
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., asked about the reports after a town hall meeting in South Carolina on Friday, declined to comment.
Investigators are also looking into whether Menendez used his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to try to help Melgen. In 2012, he held a hearing to press federal officials to help enforce contracts involving firms in the Dominican Republic, including a seaport security deal in which Melgen participated.
Dominican businesses were opposed to the contracts, saying that the fees were too high. During the hearing, Menendez didn't mention Melgen by name but said the port contract, held by “American investors,” would help screen cargo for drugs.
“And they don't want to live by that contract either,” he said, speaking to witnesses from the Commerce and State departments. “Well, what are we willing to do?”
Enright said Menendez was only interested in stopping drug trafficking in the Caribbean.
Menendez also faced reports that he and Melgen consorted with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, some of them underage, but those reports were later discredited.
Enright said Melgen has been one of Menendez's closest friends “for decades.”
“The two have spent holidays together and have gone to each other's family funerals and weddings and have exchanged personal gifts,” she said in the statement.
Melgen, 60, also has been a major donor to Menendez and other Democratic officials. In 2012, he contributed $700,000 to Reid's Senate Majority PAC as Menendez was running for reelection.
Menendez, a former longtime House member and local power broker in New Jersey politics, was appointed to the Senate in 2006 after Sen. Jon Corzine left to become governor, and then elected to a full term later that year. He was reelected in 2012.
In that role, Menendez has been the foremost Democratic critic of President Obama's efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, and cosponsored legislation that would seek to impose tougher sanctions against Tehran. At a closed-door meeting in January, Menendez sparred with Obama on the issue before his Democratic colleagues. Obama has threatened to veto the legislation.
Menendez ultimately yielded to White House pressure by agreeing, along with nine other Democratic sponsors, to delay pursuing a sanctions bill until after a key March 24 deadline in the talks. The senator reaffirmed that stance this week by vowing to block a Republican effort to begin debating the measure as soon as Tuesday.
A Cuban American, Menendez remains an advocate of a hard-line approach to the Castro government.
He said he was “deeply disappointed” in Obama's decision to open relations with Cuba, saying that the policy is rewarding brutal behavior by the Havana government.
His attorneys last year wrote a letter to the Justice Department, asking for an investigation into whether Cuba was behind an attempt to smear him.