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NEWARK — US Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said "not once have I dishonored my public office," moments before his corruption trial began on Wednesday in a New Jersey federal courtroom.
Menendez was indicted more than two years ago, and this is the first time a sitting US senator has faced federal bribery charges in 36 years. If convicted, it could have major implications in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Mendendez was charged in April 2015 for allegedly accepting gifts and campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for his political influence from a Florida doctor — charges both men deny.
Prosecutors allege that Menendez used his Senate office to help out Salomon Melgen — a long time friend and donor — in exchange for lavish gifts, including a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris and trips on the doctor's private jet to his villa in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez did not report any of the flights — a potential violation of federal laws — but later repaid Melgen $58,000 after media reports of the trips.
Menendez is accused of aiding Melgen's personal and business affairs, including helping the doctor's foreign girlfriends get visas to visit the US. Menendez also allegedly intervened with the Department of Health and Human Services to help his friend settle a $8.9 million Medicare payment dispute.
Melgen has also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to Menendez's re-election campaign.
Prosecutors allege that the "bribery scheme" began shortly after Menendez was elected to the Senate in 2006.
If Mendendez is convicted, it could have major implications in Washington over who will take his seat in the 52-48 Senate controlled by Republicans. In the case of a conviction, Menendez may face pressure to immediately resign, allowing governor Chris Christie to name a Republican as Mendendez's successor.
Senate Democrats are expected to fight that, arguing that New Jersey's next governor — which is highly expected to be Democrat Phil Murphy — name a new senator once he takes office in January.