This story was reported by Mark Mueller and Thomas Zambito. It was written by Mueller.
Facing the lowest point of his four decades in politics, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez sought to reframe the narrative in his federal corruption case Thursday, portraying himself as a victim of overzealous prosecutors who naively — or knowingly — built an indictment on a foundation of lies.
Menendez’s offensive against the federal Justice Department — first outlined at a brief press conference Wednesday night — came into sharper focus Thursday after his first appearance as a criminal defendant in federal court in Newark.
Menendez (D-N.J.), who pleaded not guilty to 14 criminal counts, issued a brief but pointed statement outside the courthouse, saying prosecutors “pursued allegations based on spears launched by political opponents trying to silence me.”
His lawyer, Abbe Lowell, went further in his criticism, saying investigators grossly misconstrued the 20-year friendship between Menendez and Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who has lavished Menendez with gifts and campaign contributions. Melgen, who faces 13 counts, including bribery and conspiracy, also pleaded not guilty Thursday.
“Prosecutors at the Justice Department often get it wrong,” Lowell said. “These charges are the latest mistakes.”
He accused investigators of buying into “false and salacious” allegations, then using “heavy-handed actions” and pressure to secure information that painted Menendez in the worst possible light. He said prosecutors also improperly leaked information to the media.
“I have asked the Justice Department to investigate this misconduct, and I can only hope that they’ll do so with as much vigor and with as many resources as they’ve applied to the investigation of Sen. Menendez,” Lowell said.
The tack taken by Menendez and his attorney represents a well-worn strategy in New Jersey corruption cases, and one prominent defense attorney said Menendez has nothing to lose by going on the attack.
“This does not appear to be a matter that would be resolved by any type of plea agreement,” the lawyer, Anthony Iacullo, said. “When you have a client who, from the outset, says I’m not responsible and I’m not going to take any kind of plea agreement, I don’t think it affects in any way the case against you.
“If anything,” Iacullo said, “it helps you to establish a position at the outset that you’re innocent.”
Melgen entered the courtroom first Thursday, followed a few minutes later by Menendez, who has said he and the eye doctor are longtime friends who have traveled together and attended each other’s family events. The two men smiled at each other as Menendez took his seat at the table.
Menendez and Melgen, both 61, are charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez, a Democrat who has twice won-re-election since his appointment to the seat in 2006, also was charged with one count of making false statements.
The indictment states Menendez vacationed without charge at Melgen’s exclusive villa in the Dominican Republic, accepted numerous free flights on the doctor’s private jet and took in more than $1 million from Melgen in donations to his campaign or to political action committees in support of Menendez.
In turn, prosecutors said, Menendez used the power of his office to intercede on Melgen’s behalf in a Medicare billing dispute and sought to protect Melgen’s interest in a cargo-screening firm in the Dominican Republic. In addition, the indictment said, Menendez helped secure visas for the married doctor’s foreign girlfriends.
Menendez (D-NJ) did not speak during Thursday’s 35-minute hearing before U.S. District Judge William Walls, but he accompanied his lawyer to a courtroom podium as Lowell entered the plea on the senator’s behalf.
“Sen. Menendez would like to enter a not-guilty plea for each of the 14 counts that have been filed against him,” Lowell told the judge.
Melgen also entered a plea of not guilty during the hearing.
Menendez was released on his own recognizance. As a condition of bail, he was required to surrender his personal passport, though he is still permitted to travel internationally with his Senate passport.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Koski told the judge he disagreed with the decision allowing Menendez to leave the country, suggesting it amounted to special treatment.
“If this were any other defendant without the title of U.S. Senator, he would be required to surrender his passport,” Koski told Walls.
Lowell countered that Menendez’s high profile made him an unlikely candidate to flee.
“I would submit that he’s the furthest thing that could be from a flight risk except for your honor himself,” Lowell told the judge.
Bail for Melgen was set at $1.5 million, with a requirement of 10 percent in cash and the balance in property. Melgen, a native of the Dominican Republic, also was ordered to surrender his Dominican and U.S. passports. His private jets are to remain grounded. He has lived in the United States since 1979.
His lawyer, Maria Dominguez, said her client would comply with the court’s conditions.
“He has not gone anywhere,” Dominguez said. “He’s not going anywhere.”
While the case plays out, Melgen has agreed to move into an apartment in West Palm Beach, Fla., because his son collects firearms and keeps them at the house they share, Dominguez said. Melgen will not be allowed to possess firearms while he’s out on bail.
The high-profile case fell to Walls, a veteran judge, after several others whose names were randomly selected to hear it were forced to recuse themselves because Menendez had supported their nominations to the bench during his years in the Senate, a source told NJ Advance Media. The source was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Walls was nominated to the bench by President Clinton in 1994, more than a decade before Menendez joined the Senate.