NEWARK (Reuters) - Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey was indicted on corruption charges, allegations that the high-ranking Democrat is vowing to fight.
Menendez was indicted by a grand jury in New Jersey for accepting gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen's financial and personal interests, according to the court filing.
Speaking Wednesday night in Newark, New Jersey, as dozens of supporters cheered and applauded, Menendez told reporters the prosecutors in the case were "dead wrong" and he intended to prove it.
"I ask my friends, my colleagues and the community to hold their judgment and remember all the other times when prosecutors got it wrong. ... I will be vindicated," Menendez said. "This is not how my career is going to end."
He was scheduled to appear in court in Newark on Thursday, his spokesman said.
The allegations against Menendez, a senior lawmaker on foreign policy and banking, raise the possibility of Republicans gaining a 55th Senate seat to strengthen their hand in policy fights with Democratic President Barack Obama, should the senator decide to resign his seat.
Menendez said he would temporarily step aside as ranking member, or top Democrat, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the wake of the indictment.
"I believe it is in the best interests of the committee, my colleagues, and the Senate, which is why I have chosen to do so," he said in a letter to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Menendez added he intended to return as ranking member "upon the successful resolution of the allegations before me."
Reid said he appreciated Menendez's willingness to step down temporarily from his leadership role on the foreign relations panel.
"He has been a consistent champion for the middle class," Reid said in a statement. "As I have said about both Democrats and Republicans, our justice system is premised on the principle of innocent until proven guilty and Senator Menendez should not be judged until he has his day in court."
BRIBERY, FRAUD CHARGES
Menendez and Melgen, both 61, were charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating travel rules, eight counts of bribery and three counts of fraud. Menendez was also charged with one count of making false statements.
Melgen and his representative could not immediately be reached for comment on the charges.
The Justice Department said Menendez accepted up to $1 million worth of lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to influence the outcome of Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to Melgen.
The 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. Between 2007 and 2012, Menendez never disclosed any of the reportable gifts that he received from Melgen and withheld the information from his Senate staff, the indictment said.
A Cuban-American, Menendez is one of the most prominent Hispanic politicians in the United States, and supporters repeatedly interrupted Wednesday's news conference with chants of "Viva Bob." He was re-elected to a second term in the Senate in 2012.