Senator Robert Menendez Indicted on Corruption Charges

The federal investigation into Mr. Menendez, 61, was well known, and charges had been expected. But the accusations in the 68-page indictment are much broader and more severe than had been publicly known. The senator was also charged with conspiracy and making false statements

The charges revolve around Mr. Menendez’s relationship with Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye surgeon and political benefactor. Dr. Melgen resisted entreaties by the Justice Department to testify against Mr. Menendez and was ultimately charged alongside him.

Prosecutors described Mr. Menendez’s offices on Capitol Hill as a hub of corrupt dealings, a place where the senator used his chief of staff to solicit gifts from Dr. Melgen, find out what he wanted in return and make sure it got done.

The indictment also reveals how the rise of super PACs, unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and subsequent legal changes, have opened a new channel for the wealthy to trade campaign cash for official favors.

Through his company, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, Mr. Melgen directed $700,000 in corporate contributions to Majority PAC, a super PAC intended to help Democrats retain control of the Senate. Mr. Melgen instructed the group to use those contributions to aid Mr. Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Among the favors for Dr. Melgen, the department said, Mr. Menendez encouraged the Obama administration to change the Medicare reimbursement policy in a way that would make millions for the doctor. Prosecutors said he also tried to push a port security deal that Dr. Melgen was involved in, and helped the surgeon’s foreign girlfriends obtain travel visas to the United States.

A bribery charge is among the most serious accusations of corruption the federal government can make. Prosecutors often opt to file a lesser charge of accepting a gratuity, which is easier to prove. A bribe amounts to the purchase of an official act, while a gratuity is seen as a way to curry favor with powerful officials.

Mr. Menendez is the first senator to face federal bribery charges since another New Jersey Democrat, Harrison A. Williams Jr., was indicted in 1980 as part of the federal corruption investigation known as Abscam. In 2002, an ethics scandal deterred Senator Robert G. Torricelli, Democrat of New Jersey, from a re-election bid.

To prove their case, prosecutors must show that Mr. Menendez’s actions and Dr. Melgen’s gifts were explicitly traded. The two men argue that they were longtime friends and that they exchanged gifts as part of that friendship.

“Prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” Mr. Menendez said on Wednesday.

The senator’s involvement in Dr. Melgen’s dispute with Medicare is the most damning element of the department’s indictment. Prosecutors cite emails showing that Mr. Menendez’s office was deeply involved in the dispute.

In 2009, Mr. Menendez sent an email instructing a staff member to call Dr. Melgen immediately regarding “a Medicare problem we need to help him with.”

Mr. Menendez argues that he intervened as a policy matter, not to help his friend. But emails show that his staff members conferred with Dr. Melgen regularly. “As you know we’ve been working on the Melgen case every day,” one staff member wrote.

At the Department of Health and Human Services, officials regarded the matter as a senator’s pulling strings for a friend. “We have a bit of a situation with Senator Menendez, who is advocating on behalf of a physician friend,” one health official wrote.

Lawyers for Dr. Melgen did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Dr. Melgen, 61, who is married, had college-age girlfriends who worked as models in Brazil, Ukraine and the Dominican Republic, prosecutors say. Several times, Mr. Menendez helped him resolve visa problems so his girlfriends could come to the United States, prosecutors added. After learning that a visa had been approved, a staff member wrote, “In my view, this is ONLY DUE to the fact that R.M. intervened.”

Mr. Menendez accepted free trips on Dr. Melgen’s private jet and stayed at his resort home in the Dominican Republic. In 2010, prosecutors say, Mr. Menendez spent three nights in an executive suite at a five-star hotel in Paris, a stay valued at nearly $5,000. When Mr. Menendez realized how much the room would cost, prosecutors said, he sent an email to Dr. Melgen and asked him to book the room using rewards points.

After describing the room, with its limestone bath and enclosed rain shower, Mr. Menendez wrote: “You call American Express Rewards, and they will book it for you. It would need to be in my name.” Dr. Melgen booked the room, prosecutors said.

Mr. Menendez’s life story is a parable of political tenacity. The son of Cuban immigrants — a carpenter and a seamstress — he began his political career as a school board member in Union City, N.J. He became mayor, state assemblyman and state senator before being elected to the House in 2002. There, he established a reputation as one of his party’s best fund-raisers.

In late 2005, he was appointed to finish the term of Senator Jon S. Corzine, who left Congress to serve as governor of New Jersey. Almost immediately, Mr. Menendez was dogged by questions of financial impropriety.

Chris Christie, then the United States attorney in Newark, opened an investigation into a nonprofit group that paid Mr. Menendez more than $300,000 in rent at the same time that he helped it win federal grants. The case ultimately went nowhere, and Mr. Menendez won the election that year. Friends have dismissed it as a politically motivated investigation.

His political fate is now unclear, but he has given no indication that he plans to step down.

Mr. Menendez said on Wednesday that he would temporarily step down as the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee

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