NEWARK, NJ -- Hours after Sen. Robert Menendez was indicted on criminal corruption charges, the New Jersey Democrat was greeted warmly -- and loudly -- by constituents in Newark on Wednesday evening. An audience that included members of the Hispanic community and victims of Hurricane Sandy applauded and cheered his proclamations of innocence and his pledge to fight.
“I’m outraged that prosecutors at the Justice Department were tricked into starting this investigation three years ago with false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me," Menendez said, during a press conference at a local hotel. “But I will not be silenced.”
“At the end of the day I will be vindicated, and they will be exposed,” the senator added.
A 68-page indictment filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court for New Jersey centers on the relationship between Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen -- a longtime Menendez family friend and political donor. The Justice Department has charged both men with multiple counts of bribery and honest services fraud.
Prosecutors allege that Menendez wielded his influence on Capitol Hill to benefit Melgen’s medical practice, in exchange for gifts that included trips on Melgen’s private jet, vacations to the Dominican Republic and more than $750,000 in campaign contributions.
In 2012 Melgen received more money in Medicare payments -- nearly $21 million -- than other doctor in the U.S.
In early 2013, Sen. Menendez personally reimbursed Melgen $58,000 for two trips to the Dominican Republic from 2010.
But Menendez has steadfastly maintained he did nothing wrong.
“Prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption,” Menendez said Wednesday.
Rather, he said, prosecutors “have chosen to twist my duties as a senator, and my friendship, into something that is improper. They are dead wrong.”
Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, delivered remarks in English and in Spanish. He did not take questions, and a spokesperson said Menendez is scheduled to appear in court on Thursday.
As the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has been an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, as well as President Obama’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Menendez is giving up that post -- for now. In a letter Wednesday to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Menendez said he was "temporarily stepping down" as ranking member.
"I want to reaffirm our understanding that I will once again ascend to the Ranking Member position of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee upon the successful resolution of the allegations before me," Menendez wrote.
The senator's resolve to surmount the charges was fully evident Wednesday, as New Jersey democratic politicians -- including fellow U.S. Sen. Cory Booker -- issued statements in support of Menendez, and attendees at the press conference shouted their encouragement.
"We support you -- like you support New Jersey," called out Linda Ferraro, whose Seaside Heights, New Jersey, house was damaged in Hurricane Sandy.
Like other victims of the 2012 storm, she credits the senator as a champion of reforms at the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is trying to fix its flood insurance program following allegations of widespread fraud.
In her case, Ferraro said Menendez applied pressure to FEMA to keep her and other New Jersey citizens from being mapped into incorrect flood zones -- which can mean a difference of thousands of dollars worth of insurance-related costs. "He basically helped all of us who were mapped into a wrong zone," she said.
Juana Edmond, who hails from the Dominican Republic, said Menendez has the "respect and love" of the state's Hispanic community.
"No matter what circumstances he's in, it doesn't have anything to do with work he's done for years," said Edmond, who runs a non-profit boxing program for children and young adults in Newark.
The senator, who has earned a reputation as a tough political fighter himself, has supported her efforts, Edmond said, with gestures like sending his staff over to the boxing gym, and providing water and juice for the kids during events.
"Hopefully he will come through, and the truth will come," Edmond said.