US Democratic Senator Robert Menendez appears in court to hear corruption charges and then claims he is 'not going anywhere'

The 61-year-old Cuban-American dismissed bribery allegations as 'politically motivated'

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The Independent US

Senator Bob Menendez has agreed to step aside from his position as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the wake of corruption and bribery charges filed against him by federal prosecutors, while vowing to fight the allegations and remain in the Senate.

A Cuban-American, Senator Menendez is one of the most prominent Hispanic political figures in the US. He denounced the charges, saying he was “not going anywhere”. He appeared in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, to hear the charges.

“I’m outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me,” he said at a press conference. “I’m angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service and my entire life.”

Mr Menendez, 61, has been under a cloud since 2013, when news leaked of a raid by federal authorities on the offices of Salomon Melgen, a prominent Florida doctor who has been a donor to his campaigns. According the charges, Mr Melgen showered him with gifts, including hotel nights in Paris and flights on his private jet as well as thousands of dollars for his legal defence fund.

In return, prosecutors allege, Mr Menendez, who has been at the forefront of the debate on Capitol Hill on US sanctions on Iran, helped organise visas for Dominican girlfriends of Dr Melgen and intervened in medical billing disputes with the federal government worth millions of dollars. 

Senator Menendez, who previously chaired the Foreign Relations panel, is facing 14 counts, including bribery, conspiracy and false statements. Also charged in the case is Dr Melgen, who declined requests to cooperate with the investigation of the senator.  It’s also alleged that the senator helped his friend hold on to a lucrative contract to provide cargo screening services to the Dominican Republic.

The case could bring unwelcome attention to Democrats in Washington. But one senior colleague, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, was quick to speak up for him. “Bob Menendez is one of the best legislators in the Senate and is always fighting hard for the people of his state,” he said. 

The affair is also reaching into the offices of another Democrat senator who has benefited from the doctor’s largesse. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota she said she would return all contribution she had banked from him and also from Senator Menendez. She is not charged in the case. 

Some of the free trips provided to Senator Menendez by the doctor were not properly reported by him or reimbursed to the doctor, prosecutors said. The court filings also say that one day after golfing with the doctor in Florida in 2013, Senator Menendez asked a staff member to write to the US Customs agency to tell them to stop donating shipping monitoring equipment to the Dominican Republic. Dr Melgen had a contract to provide monitoring equipment to that country.

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