Sen. Bob Menendez 'severely admonished' by Senate Ethics Committee

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(CNN)The Senate Ethics Committee issued a blistering letter Thursday admonishing Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey for accepting gifts without proper approval from a wealthy ophthalmologist and returning in kind with political favors.

The report comes nearly three months after the Justice Department filed to dismiss charges against the New Jersey Democrat and bring a years-long legal case -- including an 11-week trial last fall that resulted in a hung jury -- to an end. Both men had pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The ethics committee said in its letter Thursday that Menendez's actions in relation to Dr. Salomon Melgen "violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct."
    "You must repay the fair market value of all impermissible gifts not already repaid, and amend your Financial Disclosure reports to include all reportable gifts," the letter concluded. "Finally, by this letter, you are hereby severely admonished."
    A lawyer for Menendez said in a statement Thursday evening, "We are glad that this Ethics Committee process that began nearly six years ago is now finally resolved."
    "As those who followed the 11-week trial know, many of the findings in the letter were not only contradicted by the presiding judge ... but the proceedings clearly demonstrated that there was no violation of any law," Menendez counsel Marc Elias said in the statement. "This was further underscored when the Department of Justice dropped its baseless charges in January."
    He added, "More than five years ago, Senator Menendez acknowledged and made substantial payments for gifts. We halted further remedial action, including submitting amendments to his financial disclosure forms at the request of the Ethics Committee's staff. With the Ethics Committee process now concluded, Senator Menendez looks forward to continuing to serve the people of New Jersey."
    The committee consists of three Republicans -- Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Sen. James Risch of Idaho -- as well as three Democrats -- Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
    The committee started its investigation in late 2012 and put its probe on hold when the Justice Department began its own probe. After the trial in November, the committee resumed its investigation, according to the letter.
    The letter states that Menendez did not pay market value for or obtain the proper approval for gifts from Melgen that included travel on private and commercial flights, a luxury hotel stay in Paris and lodging on 19 occasions at a Dominican Republic villa from 2006 to 2013. During that same time period, Menendez provided "persistent" advocacy for Melgen, who had overbilled Medicare by more than $8.9 million, before the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and advocated for a port security services company owned Melgen. The letter said Menendez also assisted foreign nationals in obtaining visas to visit Melgen in the United States.
    "Your assistance to Dr. Melgen under these circumstances demonstrated poor judgment, and it risked undermining the public's confidence in the Senate," the letter said. "As such, your actions reflected discredit upon the Senate."
    When the Justice Department dropped charges in January, Menendez reiterated he was innocent.
    "From the very beginning, I never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail," Menendez said in a statement. "I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to reevaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion. I thank God for hearing my prayers and for giving me strength during this difficult time. I have devoted my life to serving the people of New Jersey, and am forever thankful for all who have stood by me."
    A senior Democratic aide told CNN the Ethics Committee's letter of admonishment won't affect Menendez's standing in the caucus or committees.
    After he was acquitted, Menendez resumed his role as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.