WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate Ethics Committee admonished Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey on Thursday for repeatedly accepting gifts of significant value, failing to report them and for advancing the personal and business interests of a donor.
The panel began its review in late 2012 and renewed it after the senator's federal bribery trial ended last fall with the jury hopelessly deadlocked on all charges. Prosecutors elected not to retry the case, lifting a legal cloud as Menendez seeks re-election to a third term in the Senate.
The Ethics Committee said in a public letter of admonition that Menendez repeatedly accepted gifts from Dr. Salomon Melgen from 2006 through 2013 and also used his position to advance Melgen's interests. The gifts cited by the committee included travel on private and commercial flights, a luxury hotel stay in Paris and lodging on 19 occasions at a villa in the Dominican Republic.
"You did not pay fair market value for, or, where required, obtain necessary written approval from the Committee to accept these gifts," the panel said.
During the same time, the committee said Menendez used his position in the Senate to intervene at Melgen's request with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which had found that Melgen had overbilled the agency by more than $8.9 million. The intervention took place over three years, reaching its peak in Menendez meeting with the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The committee said Menendez also advocated for ICSSI, a port security company owned by Melgen, and he helped foreign nationals obtain visas to visit Melgen in the United States.
Melgen, a prominent Florida eye doctor, received a 17-year sentence in February for stealing $73 million from Medicare by persuading elderly patients to undergo excruciating tests and treatments they didn't need for diseases they didn't have. Prosecutors showed that between 2008 and 2013, he became the nation's highest-paid Medicare doctor, building his practice by giving elderly patients unnecessary eye injections and laser blasts on their retinas that some compared to torture.
The Senate Ethics Committee includes three Republicans and three Democrats. The strong findings from the panel are rare. The Ethics Committee sometimes goes years without issuing a press release. If the committee finds a violation occurred, it may take a series of actions, including issuing a public or private letter of admonition or recommending disciplinary action by the full Senate, up to and including expulsion on a two-thirds vote. Four of the six lawmakers who signed the letter serve with Menendez on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he is the ranking Democratic member.
The panel said it has determined that Menendez violated "Senate Rules, federal law and applicable standards of conduct." The panel also directed Menendez to repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already repaid and to amend his financial disclosure reports.
It said the assistance that Menendez provided Melgen during a time when he repeatedly accepted gifts of significant value demonstrated poor judgment and risked undermining the public's confidence in the Senate.
"Your actions reflected discredit upon the Senate," the panel wrote.
Marc Elias, an attorney for Menendez, said on Twitter that the findings in the Ethics Committee's letter "were not only contradicted by the presiding judge and rejected by the jury, but the proceedings clearly demonstrated that there was no violation of any law."
Elias said that with the Ethics Committee process now concluded, "Sen. Menendez looks forward to continuing to serve the people of New Jersey."
When the decision not to retry Menendez was announced Jan. 31, the senator said the Department of Justice came to the "appropriate conclusion." He also said that he "never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail." Prosecutors had sought to prove Melgen's gifts to Menendez were actually bribes.
Menendez, 64, launched his re-election bid last month. He is being challenged by Bob Hugin, a Republican political newcomer who formerly headed New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Celgene.
Republican reaction to the Senate panel's finding was swift and harsh.
"Bob Menendez's scandalous conduct laid out in this letter should outrage every New Jersey voter," said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "The Senate Ethics Committee found what was already crystal clear from Menendez's criminal trial - Bob Menendez is a crook and an embarrassment."
The committee said it considered several factors in coming to its conclusion. The panel said it understood he had long-held beliefs related to an effective Medicare program and port security, but the fact that a cause is worthy does not negate the need to comply with ethical standards. The committee said it also was aware that Menendez described Melgen as his closest friend and "brother."
"But this makes your assistance to him no less troubling," the panel said.
The panel noted that Menendez has repaid some of the gifts Melgen provided, but it determined that such repayment does not erase the violation given the lapse of time between acceptance and repayment, and the circumstances that prompted the repayment.
The panel concluded its report saying, "finally, by this letter, you are hereby severely admonished."