Mon, 11 Dec 2023

WASHINGTON (CN) - Even as New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, facing federal bribery charges, said this week that he would not resign from Congress, a growing faction of congressional Democrats are urging the lawmaker to step down.

Menendez, who wields sizeable influence in the Senate as chair of the upper chamber's foreign relations committee, was indicted Friday in the Southern District of New York. Federal prosecutors accused the senator of abusing his position to benefit the government of Egypt in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.

It's Menendez's second set of corruption charges in a decade. The lawmaker in 2015 was indicted in a similar scheme, but a hung jury scuttled his trial two years later.

This time around, the New Jersey Democrat has so far been unrepentant, telling reporters during a press conference Monday that he believes he will be exonerated. "The allegations leveled against me are just that: allegations," Menendez said.

After the dust settles, he added, "Not only will I be exonerated, but I will still be New Jersey's senior senator."

Despite that, Menendez is already contending with some fallout from the charges. The senator has given up his position as head of the Senate's foreign affairs panel thanks to congressional ethics rules that bar lawmakers facing criminal charges from committee leadership.

To make matters worse for Menendez, some of his Democratic colleagues have said in the days following his indictment that he should step away from Capitol Hill entirely.

Beginning over the weekend, more than a half dozen Senators and a handful of members of Congress have called on the senator to resign, arguing the situation was a matter of public trust.

Perhaps the most influential push came from Menendez's fellow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who urged his colleague to step down Tuesday morning. In a statement, Booker said stepping aside would be not "an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifices at great personal cost."

"It is not surprising to me that Senator Menendez is again determined to mount a vigorous defense," Booker said, adding that a jury will determine whether he is guilty or innocent.

"There is, however, another higher standard for public officials," the senator continued, "one not of criminal law but of common ideals. As senators, we operate in the public trust. That trust is essential to our ability to do our work and perform our duties for our constituents."

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than ten Senate Democrats have urged Menendez to resign, among them Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman.

"The indictment spells out deeply troubling allegations against Senator Menendez that breach the American people's trust and compromise his ability to effectively represent his constituents," Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin said in a statement Tuesday.

Baldwin added that her Democratic colleague should be considered innocent until proven guilty, however she felt it was "best for his constituents, the American people, and our national security for the senator to step down."

Montana Senator Jon Tester concurred, saying Tuesday that he found the charges against Menendez "deeply disturbing."

Many of the senators pushing Menendez to step down, including Baldwin and Tester, are facing tough reelection battles in 2024.

House Democrats have also joined in calling for the New Jersey senator to resign. California Representative and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday during an appearance on MSNBC that "it would probably be a good idea if he did resign."

"I respect the position that [prosecutors] are taking," Pelosi said, "and the charges are formidable."

Menendez's legal peril also spurred New Jersey Congressman Andy Kim to announce a Senate bid aimed at unseating the embattled lawmaker. Kim, who represents the Garden State's third congressional district, said Saturday that he was inspired to run after hearing that Menendez had no intention of stepping down.

"Not something I expected to do, but NJ deserves better," Kim said in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. "We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity."

According to prosecutors, Menendez and his wife accepted nearly $480,000 in cash bribes and $100,000 in gold bars, as well as mortgage and car payments, from a trio of associates. The lawmaker promised to use his political influence to "protect and enrich those businessmen and to benefit the government of Egypt," U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said Friday.

Menendez stands accused of using his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to aid Cairo, including by approving sales of U.S. equipment to the Egyptian military.

The lawmaker has denied the allegations, comparing them to the 2015 corruption charges and deeming them attempts by unnamed forces to "silence my voice and dig my political grave."

"I have been falsely accused before because I refused to back down to the powers that be," Menendez said in a statement Friday, "and the people of New Jersey were able to see through the smoke and mirrors and recognize I was innocent."

Menendez is expected to be arraigned on Wednesday.

Source: Courthouse News Service

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