Federal prosecutors have indicted the New Jersey senator, Robert Menendez, on charges of public corruption following a two-year investigation. He is a senior member of the foreign policy, banking and finance committees.
Menendez is alleged to have accepted gifts from a donor and friend, Salomon Melgen, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen's personal and financial interests. Melgen has also been charged.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the charges are "in connection with a bribery scheme in which Menendez allegedly accepted gifts from (Florida ophthalmologist Salomon) Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen's financial and personal interests."
Menendez is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was chairman of the foreign relations panel until January when Republicans gained control of the Senate. He is also lead author of legislation aimed at tightening sanctions against Iran.
The senator is regarded as one of the most influential Hispanic American lawmakers in Congress. He has called for immigration reform, urging a pathway to citizenship for nearly 12 million undocumented residents of the United States.
He is also a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees Wall Street regulation and the tax law-writing Senate Finance Committee. He previously spent 13 years in the House of Representatives and was re-elected to his Senate seat in 2012. His current term ends in January 2019.
Denial of illegal activity
Menendez has already defended himself against the charges during a media appearance last month. He said he had not broken the law.
The senator faces 14 charges including conspiracy and making false statements, and eight counts of bribery.
The 61-year-old lawmaker acknowledges he and Melgen have been close friends for more than two decades, celebrating holidays, family weddings, funerals and birthdays together.
The last senator to be indicted, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, did not resign after he was charged with failing to report gifts and services from an oil company in 2008. Stevens lost his race for re-election that year, and his conviction was dismissed in 2009.
Democrat Harrison Williams was convicted in 1981 for taking bribes and resigned from the Senate in 1982. He held the New Jersey Senate seat now occupied by Menendez.
No laws or constitutional prohibitions would bar Menendez from continuing to cast votes or otherwise work as a senator if he were indicted. There also are no Democratic Party rules that govern whether he would be stripped of any positions in case of an indictment.
Congress is currently on a two-week break.
jm/gsw (AFP, Reuters)