[WASHINGTON] US Senator Robert Menendez was indicted on Wednesday on charges of public corruption, following a two-year federal investigation into his ties to a friend who contributed large sums to his re-election campaign.
Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and lead author of legislation aimed at tightening sanctions against Iran, will temporarily step down from his role on the panel.
"While there is no caucus rule that dictates that I do so, 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," Menendez wrote in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, insisting he would resume his post once the proceedings are concluded.
He faces 14 charges, including conspiracy and eight counts of bribery.
The two-term New Jersey senator faces up to 15 years in prison for each bribery charge. He could appear in court as early as Thursday.
The charges are connected to an alleged bribery scheme in which Menendez accepted gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen "in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen's financial and personal interests," Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said.
Menendez expressed outrage at the charges.
"I'm angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption, and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper," Menendez told reporters in Newark, New Jersey.
"They are dead wrong," said Menendez, one of the most influential Hispanic American lawmakers. "This is not how my career is going to end." The 61-year-old acknowledges he and Melgen, also 61, have been close friends for decades. But the indictment paints a detailed picture of two men deeply involved in several layers of bribery and conspiracy.
Melgen contributed some US$750,000 towards Menendez's 2012 re-election efforts, the indictment said.
Menendez was gifted more than 20 flights, mostly on Melgen's private jets, between New Jersey, Florida and the Dominican Republic, where the senator - occasionally accompanied by a guest - was put up in Melgen's posh Caribbean resort property.
At Menendez's request, he was also provided a three-night stay at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, valued at US$4,934.10 and paid for by Melgen.
Menendez "never disclosed any of the reportable gifts that he received from Melgen," prosecutors said.
In return, Menendez allegedly pressured US officials in 2009 and 2012 to reverse a federal order that Melgen repay nearly US$9 million in overbilling to the Medicare health care programme for US seniors.
Menendez is also said to have intervened to help win US visas for three of Melgen's girlfriends, and to resolve a dispute at Dominican ports that would favor Melgen and his security scanning business.