April 2, 2015 / 12:05 AM / 3 years ago

Senator Menendez pleads not guilty to corruption charges

NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a leading foreign policy voice in Congress, entered a not guilty plea on corruption charges during a federal court appearance on Thursday and was released without bail.

Menendez, a Democrat, was charged on Wednesday with accepting up to $1 million worth of lavish gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, in exchange for political favors.

Melgen also entered a not guilty plea and was released on $1.5 million bond.

Neither man spoke during the appearance in a Newark, New Jersey, courtroom. Menendez, in a blue pin-striped suit, rested his arms on the table in front of him as he listened to the hearing, which lasted less than an hour.

Menendez stood next to his attorney, Abbe Lowell, who entered not-guilty pleas for him on 14 corruption counts. Melgen followed, pleading not guilty through his attorney on all counts.

The federal indictment said Melgen improperly gave Menendez flights on private jets, use of a Caribbean villa, a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris and tens of thousands of dollars to a legal defense fund.

In return, Menendez used the power of his Senate office to try to influence the outcome of Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to Melgen, the indictment said.

Following the court appearance, Menendez, now in his second Senate term, maintained his innocence and lashed out at federal prosecutors.

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

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (C) arrives to the Federal court in Newark, New Jersey April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Even if he eventually is cleared, Menendez has seen his political influence plummet. On Wednesday, Menendez agreed to temporarily step aside as senior Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland will replace Menendez as top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, a Senate aide said on Thursday.

But signaling Menendez will try to remain a force in Washington, his Senate office issued a statement on Thursday urging “rigorous” congressional review of a nuclear framework deal just struck between Iran and world powers.

Speaking to reporters, Lowell decried leaks to the news media during the investigation and asked the Justice Department to probe the “misconduct.”

The next court date was set for April 22, with a tentative trial date for July 13.

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Editing by Emily Stephenson, Will Dunham and Diane Craft

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