AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A grand jury has indicted Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey on federal corruption charges. Menendez made a brief statement to reporters after the indictment was announced.
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SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: I fight for issues I believe in, the people I represent and for the safety and security of this country every single day. That's who I am, and I am proud of what I have accomplished, and I am not going anywhere.
CORNISH: Senator Menendez says he'll stay in office but will step down from his role as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been following this case and joins me now. Hansi, bring us up to date. What's included in the indictment?
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, Audie, Senator Menendez is facing more than a dozen charges, and basically, the Justice Department is saying that he was part of a bribery scheme between himself and an eye doctor in Florida who's named Salomon Melgen who gave gifts to Senator Menendez - gifts including flights on private jets, stays at his villa in the Dominican Republic and, allegedly, according to this indictment, more than $700,000 in campaign contributions. All these gifts were - the value of them were concealed, and the reportable gifts were deliberately left off financial disclosure forms. That's what the Justice Department is saying the Senator Menendez did. And in return, Senator Menendez allegedly used his Senate office to help Melgen do things like help his girlfriends from abroad get visas to come to the U.S. and help him out of a Medicare billing dispute of almost $9 million that Melgen had with the federal government.
CORNISH: We heard the senator defending himself just now, but did he address the charges specifically in his press conference?
WANG: He didn't address all the charges point-by-point, but he was very defiant in his tone, and he had a loud crowd in the room in addition to reporters. Some supporters were cheering, but here's what he said.
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MENENDEZ: I'm angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper. They are dead wrong, and I am confident that they will be proven so.
WANG: He said before in previous statements regarding this indictment that his relationship with Doctor Melgen is a personal one that's been - that's lasted over 20 years, and they do weddings, birthdays, funerals as family friends and give gifts back and forth all very, you know - no problems there.
CORNISH: Hansi, help us understand the timing here. Senator Menendez has been under federal investigation for two years now.
WANG: Right. Well, he is also the top Latino Democrat in Congress, a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It's very hard to bring these cases against a sitting member of Congress, and one of the reasons is because there's this thing called a speech or debate clause in the Constitution. It essentially gives sitting members of Congress immunity for anything they say or do on the floor of Congress, and so you can't use those as - to bring charges - criminal charges against sitting members of Congress. And, you know, I talked to Melanie Sloan. She's a former federal prosecutor. She says this is going to be a long, drawn-out legal fight. And there's one charge she saw in the indictment that really stands out which is the, you know, more than $700,000 in campaign contributions that was highlighted in the indictment. And she says that really stood out to her that - this is what she told me.
MELANIE SLOAN: I think politicians everywhere will be quaking in their boots tonight knowing that campaign contributions can indeed be considered bribes by the Justice Department. While the law has allowed that all along, the Justice Department rarely prosecutes a politician for accepting a campaign contribution.
CORNISH: So, Hansi, what's next for this case? We're going to be listening for more from Senator Menendez.
WANG: We're going to be listening for more, seeing how this case plays out. The Justice Department is under a lot of pressure to make sure this actually is a case.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the federal corruption charges against Senator Robert Menendez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.