WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal prosecutors are expected to charge Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez on Wednesday with using his Senate office to push the business interests of a friend and donor in exchange for gifts , people briefed on the case say.
The case, brought by the Justice Department’s public integrity unit, sets up a high-stakes battle between a New Jersey senator who has fought off investigations for years, and federal prosecutors and the FBI who have spent years pursuing him.
Federal officials and Menendez’s attorneys have discussed plans for the New Jersey Democrat to turn himself in before a planned court hearing on Thursday, according to people briefed on the case.
A spokesman for the Justice Department declined comment, as did a spokeswoman for Menendez.
The government’s case, as first reported by CNN last month, centers on Menendez’s relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist who the senator has called a friend and political supporter. Melgen and his family have been generous donors to the senator and various committees the senator is associated with.
The criminal charges are expected to be filed Wednesday, but the government’s plans could still change.
Investigators have focused in part on plane trips Menendez took in 2010 to the Dominican Republic as a guest of Melgen. In 2013, after word of the federal investigation became public, Menendez paid back Melgen $58,000 for the 2010 plane trips calling his failure to properly disclose the flights an “oversight.”
Menendez has said he’s innocent, noting that he has been friends with Melgen for more than 20 years and that the two families have spent holidays and other special occasions together.
After CNN reported on the pending charges, Menendez told reporters that he has “always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law. And I am not going anywhere.”
One of the highest-ranking Hispanic members of Congress, Menendez is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has become one of the Obama administration’s most vocal Democratic opponents on two key foreign policy matters — President Barack Obama’s decision to ease the trade embargo against Cuba and also his effort to engage direct negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear program.
Prosecutors are under pressure in part because of the statute of limitation on some of the allegations. Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on the plan to bring charges and had expected to be gone by the time they were announced. However, an unrelated political fight over abortion in the Senate has stalled the nomination of Holder’s successor, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.
The case is expected to pose a high-profile test of the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute sitting lawmakers, having already spawned a legal battle between prosecutors and Menendez’s attorneys over whether key evidence the government has gathered is protected by the Constitution’s Speech and Debate clause.