The top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, has been indicted in connection with an alleged bribery scheme.
Menendez, 61, and a friend, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, were indicted Wednesday on 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.
The indictment came after federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had investigated Menendez for years on suspicion of corruption.
Allegations in the indictment say that Menendez accepted close to $1 million worth of lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to influence ongoing Medicare billing disputes Melgen was involved in and to support the visa applications of several of Melgen's girlfriends.
Senator Menendez has repeatedly said that he is innocent of any wrongdoing and that he "is not going anywhere" - meaning he has no plans to resign from the Senate. Senate rules do not require him to step down unless he is convicted of the charges against him.
At a late afternoon news conference in his home state Wednesday, the New Jersey senator predicted he will be vindicated. He said he is "ready to fight" the corruption charges against him.
Menendez is scheduled to appear in court in Newark, New Jersey Thursday.
Differences with Obama
Menendez, a Cuban-American, served as Foreign Relations Committee chairman until January, when Republicans took majority control of the Senate. He is now the ranking Democrat on the committee and has taken a strong stand against President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, on some issues.
Menendez has been a vocal critic of a possible deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, and he also criticized the president for his unexpected policy of relaxing some restrictions on Cuba. But he has been a strong supporter of the president on immigration reform.
News of the indictment came as international negotiations on a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program continued into a second day after a self-imposed deadline. Menendez had expressed strong skepticism about a deal but agreed to give the Obama administration time to pursue a pact before voting to impose new sanctions.
It was not clear what impact his legal problems might have on efforts by Congress to have a say on any Iran nuclear deal.
The Menendez indictment raised the possibility of Republicans gaining a 55th Senate seat to strengthen their hand in policy fights with Obama.
If Menendez were to step down, New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, would most likely appoint a Republican replacement to serve until a special election. That would bring the number of Republicans in the Senate one seat closer to the 60-seat “supermajority” needed to overcome Democrats' procedural roadblocks and advance legislation.
Gaining that incremental edge could mean the difference in a political fight over confirming Loretta Lynch, Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. attorney general, whom many Republicans oppose. That vote is expected to be very close.
A Menendez resignation could also put Republicans just one vote shy of clearing the way for passage of a human-trafficking bill with anti-abortion language, which Democrats have blocked.
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 set aside 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.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.