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Justice Department To File Corruption Charges Against Sen. Menendez

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block, and we begin this hour with the big political news that broke today. The Justice Department has decided to bring criminal charges against Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey. This is according to two people familiar with the case. CNN first reported this, and sources now tell NPR it's not clear when the corruption charges will be publically filed. Late today, Sen. Menendez made a brief statement to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ROBERT MENENDEZ: Let me be very clear - very clear. I have always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law.

BLOCK: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering the story and joins me now. And, Carrie, this is an investigation that's been going on for years. What exactly has the Justice Department been looking into in terms of Sen. Menendez?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The core of the case is the relationship between Sen. Menendez, two-term senator from New Jersey, and an eye doctor, a longtime friend and donor named Salomon Melgen. The question that prosecutors have been examining is whether Sen. Menendez did anything official to help out his eye doctor friend in exchange for private jet flights to the Dominican Republic and other favors.

Melgen has been a very generous donor to Sen. Menendez. And the question authorities want to answer and have been asking for some time now, Melissa, is whether Sen. Menendez did anything in exchange for those donations and those flights.

In particular, Dr. Melgen has some business interests in the Dominican Republic, including a port security contract that Sen. Menendez brought up in Congress, and Dr. Melgen has had a long-standing issue with Medicare reimbursements in his doctor practice. And there's an allegation that Sen. Menendez intervened with Medicare to try to get reimbursement payments changed that would've helped the eye doctor.

BLOCK: And this is an investigation that's taken some time, as you say. When might we see charges filed?

JOHNSON: It's not clear when charges will be filed. I'm hearing from people familiar with the case. It might take a week or two or more. The reason it's taken so long, Melissa, is that Sen. Menendez is a big fish. And when you charge somebody who's a sitting U.S. Senator, you want to be very clear that you have an ironclad case. These cases are hard, both in terms of the facts and the law.

BLOCK: Yeah.

JOHNSON: The law because official acts, statements that senators make on the floor, are - generally receive protection under the Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause. And we know, based on some information that leaked out over the last couple of weeks, that two of Sen. Menendez's aides have actually declined to testify in front of a grand jury citing that Speech or Debate Clause issue.

BLOCK: Now, Carrie, there have been stories circulating about this case for quite some time now. The senator has threw out - publically denied any impropriety, any wrongdoing. What's the core of his defense?

JOHNSON: And again today, Melissa, Menendez's spokesperson, Tricia Enright, says they believe all of the senator's actions have been appropriate and lawful, and the facts will ultimately confirm that. They say that anything Sen. Menendez did, in terms of Dominican Republic interests or Medicare, was done out of public policy reasons and not out of corruption. And moreover, Melissa, one argument that his defense lawyer, Abbe Lowell, may be making, and has been making for some time, is that these two people were friends. This senator and this eye doctor knew each other for 20 years. They attended weddings and funerals together, and that offers some protection or at least could be compelling in front of a jury if this case ever gets that far.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Again, the news that the Justice Department is planning to file charges against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Carrie, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.