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Menendez Indicted on Public Corruption Charges

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been charged with corruption. It's likely to have an immediate impact on U.S. foreign policy.

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Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been charged with public corruption for allegedly greasing government access for a top political donor. The 14-count indictment, unsealed Wednesday by a New Jersey grand jury, puts Menendez’s political future in doubt and sets up a legal fight to keep him out of prison.

After a two-year FBI inquiry, Justice Department prosecutors accused Menendez (D-N.J.) of helping Florida-based doctor Salomon Melgen win a port security contract in the Dominican Republic. Menendez also is charged with intervening on Melgen’s behalf in a government dispute over $9 million in Medicare charges, according to the indictment.

The charges will have an immediate impact on foreign policy. Menendez broke with the White House and allied himself with Republicans as the lead Democratic sponsor on a bill that would bring any Iran nuclear deal before Congress for a 60-day review.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on that measure after the Senate reconvenes April 13 from a spring recess. The Justice Department’s announcement now puts to rest rumors on Capitol Hill that the White House leaked news weeks ago of the impending indictment to discredit the senator because of his position on Iran.

Menendez denies wrongdoing and has vowed to fight the charges. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has not yet called on Menendez to step down from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But now that the charges have formally been filed, reports indicate that Menendez is expected to abandon his committee position. He may also abstain from a vote — one the White House badly needs — to confirm attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.

Menendez is one of the most influential Hispanic lawmakers in Washington. The son of Cuban immigrants, he is opposed to the recent thaw in relations between Washington and Havana. He has threatened to block confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba when an embassy is opened there, and has repeatedly lobbed loud, public criticism at President Barack Obama for the new attempt at diplomacy.

Menendez is also a vocal Democratic supporter of Israel. His support for Jerusalem has been rewarded by donors who have given to pro-Israel political action committees. Through 2014, these donors have raised more than $200,000 dollars for his legal fund, according to the New York Times.

Wednesday’s indictment was not a surprise: Reports indicated that Menendez’s office is discussing plans for the senator turn himself in before a court hearing Thursday.

In 2009 and 2012, prosecutors say, Menendez lobbied officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services after it found Melgen had overbilled the government by $9 million. Menendez and Reid also met with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in August 2012 to discuss Melgen’s case (an earlier probe determined Reid did nothing improper during the meeting). Melgen subsequently paid back the money.

Prosecutors also allege Menendez contacted the Commerce and State departments in an effort to put pressure on the Dominican Republic government for its failure to pay a security company owned by Melgen.

Melgen has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Menendez over the years. Both Reid and Menendez have also flown on the doctor’s private jet. Menendez was forced to repay $70,000 after details of unreported flights emerged.

He is the first senator to be indicted since 2008, when the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was found guilty of lying about thousands of dollars in home renovations and other gifts. The indictment against Menendez contains one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery, and three counts of honest services fraud.

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky / stringer / Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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