Sen. Robert Menendez launched a wide-ranging attack on the corruption charges against him Monday, accusing Justice Department prosecutors of misconduct and setting the stage for what is likely to be a confrontational and heated court fight.
The Democrat's attorneys filed a series of motions to dismiss the 22-count indictment against him and the Florida eye doctor who allegedly bought the senator's influence with luxury vacations and campaign donations.
Among other claims, the motions accuse the government of intimidating witnesses and presenting false testimony to a grand jury. They claim prosecutors skirted a federal appeals court ruling and presented evidence to the grand jury that should have been off-limits under laws governing legislators' activities.
Lawyers for Menendez suggest the indictment attempts to criminalize ordinary acts of citizens who endeavor to secure access or influence to a politician.
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"Officials frequently sell access by spending time with those who pay to attend fundraising events, and they are quick to answer the phone and lend an ear when major donors call," one of the motions said. "Even presidents have been known to invite major donors to the White House for coffee or dinner, or even to stay the night in the Lincoln bedroom."
Prosecutors also "advanced salacious allegations of sexual misconduct, intimidated and coerced witnesses in the Dominican Republic with threats of criminal and immigration sanctions, intimidated Senator Menendez's own family members, harassed and abused staff members and other witnesses before the grand jury by asking inflammatory questions designed to infect the grand jury process," according to one filing.
Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, didn't comment on the specific accusations but said the government "will file a response at the appropriate time with the court."
Menendez, a congressman for more than 20 years and a member of the Senate since 2006, is charged in 14 counts of the indictment with accepting gifts and donations totaling about $1 million from ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for political favors. The gifts included flights aboard a luxury jet to the Dominican Republic and a Paris vacation.
In return, Menendez is accused of advocating for Melgen in a Medicare billing dispute and trying to get the State Department to intervene in a contract dispute involving a business Melgen owned that had a contract to install and operate X-ray equipment to inspect shipping containers at Dominican Republic ports.
Menendez has claimed he and Melgen have been friends for years and that he did nothing illegal. Monday's briefs characterized Melgen's generosity as "hospitality" and Menendez's actions as protected under the "speech and debate" clause of the Constitution. That provision protects elected officials from being questioned by prosecutors, among others, about their legislative work, and has been invoked by other members of Congress seeking to be shielded from prosecution.
"Contrary to the indictment's skewed narrative, Dr. Melgen's hospitality began long before his friend became 'Senator' Menendez," one filing claimed. "The alleged 'official acts' were simply actions that Senator Menendez took consistent with long-standing policy positions that have characterized his entire career."
Melgen also is charged in a separate indictment in Florida accusing him of multiple counts of Medicare fraud.
A federal judge in Newark has set a trial date for October.