LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Sen. Menendez Pleads Not Guilty to Bribery Charges

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Sen. Bob Menendez made his first appearance in court today one day after his indictment on federal bribery charges and pled not guilty on all 14 counts against him.

His alleged co-conspirator, Dr. Salomon Melgen of Florida, also pled not guilty on all counts.

Prosecutors tried to get Melgen’s cooperation in the case against Menendez, but he chose non-cooperation and faces essentially the same charges.

In the courtroom of U.S. District Judge William Walls, Menendez was released on his own recognizance after the judge deemed him neither a flight risk nor a threat to the community.

He will have to surrender his personal passport but not his official Senate passport.

Melgen was released on a $1.5 million bond, 10 percent cash, 90 percent secured by real property.

He has surrendered his two passports — U.S. and Dominican.

He must submit to drug testing, rid his home of firearms and his private jet is grounded.

Melgen and his Florida attorneys left the courthouse without comment.

Menendez and his attorney Abbe Lowell of Washington D.C. each made brief statements.

“As we have seen in so many cases — from former HUD secretary Mike Espe in 1999, to Senator Ted Stevens in 2007 and two years ago in the case of Jon Edwards — prosecutors at the Justice Department often get it wrong,” Lowell said.

“For nearly three years, the Justice Department has pursued allegations based on smears launched by political opponents trying to silence me. Now they have laid out their case we will finally have an opportunity to respond, on the record, in court, with the facts,” Menendez said.

The government charges that Menendez accepted nearly $1 million in flights, travel and campaign contributions in return for official favors.

Menendez maintains that he and Melgen are personal friends and that there was no criminal intent.

“Prosecutors got to write the indictment that they returned the way they wanted to after a secret one-sided presentation to a grand jury, but they don’t get those advantages now. Now they have to make good on those charges. Now they have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a 20-year friendship relationship between Menendez and Melgen was something else,” said Lowell.

Democrats around New Jersey have rallied behind Menendez.

“I’ve always found Bob Menendez a great man of integrity,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey.

“Unfortunately in the world of politics and government accusations are common. And we live in a world where accusations don’t mean you’re guilty,” said Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.

“We live in a country where you’re innocent before proven guilty. A lot of people get accused of things, but they get to have their day in court. Senator Menendez has done some great things for the state so I think he’s entitled to at least have his day in court,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Under speedy trial rules, Menendez and Melgen are entitled to a trial within 70 days. Both waived that right today, but the judge said he wants to move expeditiously and set a tentative trial date of July 13.