Updated 8:31 p.m.
| After months of rumor and speculation, Sen. Robert Menendez has finally been indicted on corruption charges.
The New Jersey Democrat, who is the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, faces 14 counts related to public corruption, the Department of Justice said Wednesday. Menendez was defiant that he did nothing wrong in a press conference Wednesday night in Newark, and vowed to fight the charges, saying he is confident “at the end of the day I will be vindicated.”
“I am not going anywhere,” the senator added. “I’m angry, and ready to fight.”
Menendez informed Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Wednesday that he would temporarily step aside as the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee.
“I am hereby notifying you that I am temporarily stepping down as Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Menendez wrote in a letter. “While there is no caucus rule that dictates that I do so, I believe it is in the best interests of the Committee, my colleagues, and the Senate which is why I have chosen to do so.”
Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said he agreed with Menendez’s move to temporarily relinquish his committee leadership post.
“The issues before Senator Menendez are now legal ones and can only be resolved in a court of law, where all Americans are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. I believe it was the right decision for Senator Menendez to step aside from his committee leadership post until the matter is resolved,” the Illinois Democrat said in a statement.
“I appreciate Senator Menendez’s willingness to temporarily step down as ranking member,” Reid said in a statement. “He has been a consistent champion for the middle class. As I have said about both Democrats and Republicans, our justice system is premised on the principle of innocent until proven guilty and Senator Menendez should not be judged until he has his day in court.”
The counts stem from Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor and political donor to Menendez. Melgen was also indicted.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the duo were indicted for a scheme in which “Menendez allegedly accepted gifts from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen’s financial and personal interests.”
“Menendez, 61, of Union City, New Jersey, and Melgen, 61, of West Palm Beach, Florida, were indicted in the District of New Jersey for 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.”
While details of the scope of the criminal charges are new, the fact they were coming is a surprise to no one, given previous leaks about elements of the investigation.
“Bob Menendez is one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state. I am confident he will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in his own statement Wednesday evening.
Schumer is expected to be the next Democratic leader once Reid retires.
In a public statement in March, Menendez denied any wrongdoing , and vowed he would not vacate his seat after charges came down.
“I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law,” Menendez said March 6 in Newark. “I’m not going anywhere.”
If Menendez is forced to resign, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would appoint a senator to serve until a special election is held to select a replacement.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Donald Norcross , brother of powerful New Jersey Democratic Party leader George E. Norcross, is mentioned as a possible contender in a potential special election. Two other Democrats in the congressional delegation, Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr. and Donald M. Payne Jr., could also run.
Democratic operatives in the state add that Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, both of whom are mulling gubernatorial bids in the Garden State in 2017, could drop down to the Senate special election, too.
New Jersey is a strong Democratic state. Voters haven’t elected a Republican to the Senate in New Jersey since 1972. And Christie’s sliding popularity could be a hindrance to Republicans seeking the seat.
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