Justice Department officials won’t say whether they may bring criminal charges against US Sen. Bob Menendez.
But according to numerous news sources, the New Jersey Democrat is the subject of an investigation into his relationship with a wealthy Florida eye doctor and political donor, including trips to the Dominican Republic on Dr. Salomon Melgen’s private aircraft and actions Sen. Menendez allegedly took regarding Medicare payments that would have benefited the ophthalmologist. Menendez also is said to have intervened regarding a port security business in the Dominican Republic in which Dr. Melgen had a financial interest.
At a news conference Friday, Menendez strong denied any wrongdoing.
"Let me be very clear, I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law," he said. "Every action that I and my office have taken for the last 23 years that I have been privileged to be in the United States Congress has been based on pursuing the best policies for the people of New Jersey and this entire country."
Menendez wouldn't take questions, he said, "because there is an ongoing inquiry." But he portrayed his relationship with Melgen as a friendship that goes back years.
"We celebrated holidays together," he said at the news conference. "We have been there for family weddings and sad times like funerals and have given each other birthday, holiday and wedding presents just as friends do."
The two men also appeared together frequently at Democratic Party and Latino political functions from Washington to Miami. Melgen has contributed nearly $200,000 to Democratic Party candidates since 1998, including $14,200 to Menendez, the Associated Press reports. And in 2012, during Menendez's re-election campaign, Melgen gave $700,000 to a super political action committee that spent more than $580,000 to help Menendez.
The thread of that inquiry goes back several years.
“In 2009 and 2012, Menendez intervened with top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – the agency that oversees the Medicare program – about a CMS ruling that Melgen had overbilled the Medicare program by nearly $9 million. Melgen has repaid those funds,” Politico.com reports. “FBI agents and investigators from the Department of Health and Human Services have searched the Florida ophthalmologist’s offices twice as part of the probe.”
Meanwhile, Menendez has been required to pay thousands of dollars in reimbursement for the flights on Dr. Melgen’s aircraft.
Menendez has butted heads with the Obama administration on some important issues, including diplomatic openings to Cuba (Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants) and Iran’s nuclear capabilities (Menendez is a strong supporter of Israel).
He is the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he receives classified briefings. If formal corruption charges are brought, it’s unclear whether he could retain that position. As Politico points out, two other senators in recent years, the late Ted Stevens of Alaska and John Ensign of Nevada, each stepped aside from leadership posts as they faced scrutiny over their actions in public office.