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Sen. Menendez traded political favors for patron’s gifts, says Justice Department

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was indicted late Wednesday by the Justice Department on federal bribery charges. Gwen Ifill talks to Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times about the allegations that Menendez turned his Capitol Hill office into a criminal enterprise.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The Justice Department announced today, that, for the first time since the 1980 Abscam scandal, it is indicting a sitting U.S. senator on federal bribery charges.

    For more on the action against New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, we turn to Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times, who's been covering the story.

    Matt, eight counts of bribery, 22 counts in all. Tell us a little bit about what you know, from reading the indictment, about what they're charging.

  • MATT APUZZO, The New York Times:

    Well, it's a really big indictment, Gwen. I'm actually about two-thirds the way through it, and it's — we all knew this was coming, but it's a lot broader and a lot deeper than I think a lot of us who have been following this closely expected.

    It basically describes Senator Menendez turning his Capitol Hill office into a criminal enterprise, basically using his offices and using his staff to go out and solicit gifts, find out what his political patron wanted in return, and then make sure it got done, describes trading favors, political favors, for trips on a private jet, first-class airfare, vacations, a five-star hotel in Paris.

    It's very, very broad. The indictment runs over 60 pages. It really is an aggressive move by the Justice Department.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tell us about his political patrons.

  • MATT APUZZO:

    Salomon Melgen, he is a Florida eye surgeon. And they have been friends since the 1990s, by all accounts, real friends.

    They vacation together. They exchange gifts. And that's going to be key to the defense. Menendez is arguing that this is a friendship, and that friends exchange gifts. And the Justice Department says this went well beyond friendship; this was a corrupt bribery scheme.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So the Justice Department is saying they have evidence that there was something given in exchange?

  • MATT APUZZO:

    Correct.

    It's not unusual — I wouldn't say it's unusual to charge bribery, but it's certainly — certainly easier to charge taking an unlawful gratuity. Bribery is like payment for something, whereas a gratuity is kind of like a tip thank you. They're saying he did favors for gifts. And that's a high bar, a much higher bar from a legal standard.

    And I think that's why you see the totality of the evidence that the Justice Department is throwing out here.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • MATT APUZZO:

    Always good to be here.

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