US senator Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges of taking bribes from three New Jersey businessmen, as calls for his resignation from his fellow Democrats escalated.
He was released on a $100,000 bond and then left federal court in New York without speaking to reporters.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan last week accused Mr Menendez (69) and his wife, Nadine, of accepting gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in exchange for the senator using his influence to aid Egypt’s government and interfere with law-enforcement investigations of the businessmen.
Mr Menendez entered the plea at a hearing before US magistrate judge Ona Wang in Manhattan.
The Democratic senator will be required to surrender his personal passport, but may retain his official passport and travel abroad on official business. His wife, Nadine Menendez (56) and businessmen Jose Uribe (56) and Fred Daibes (66), also pleaded not guilty. A third businessman, Wael Hana (40), pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.
Mr Menendez, one of two senators representing New Jersey, stepped down from his role as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, as required under his party’s rules.
But on Monday he said he would stay in the Senate and fight the charges. More than half of all US Democratic senators – including Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey and historically a close ally – have called on Mr Menendez, a powerful voice on foreign policy who has at times bucked his own party, to resign since the charges were unveiled on Friday.
Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat in the Senate, on Wednesday joined fellow Senate Democrats urging him to step down, saying on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he believed he could no longer serve.
Democrats narrowly control the Senate with 51 seats, including three independents who normally vote with them, to the Republicans’ 49. The Democratic New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, who would appoint a temporary replacement should Menendez step aside, has also called for him to resign.
The indictment contained images of gold bars and cash investigators seized from Menendez’s home. Prosecutors say Mr Hana arranged meetings between the senator and Egyptian officials – who pressed him to sign off on military aid – and in return put his wife on the payroll of a company he controlled.
The investigation marks the third time Menendez has been under investigation by federal prosecutors. He has never been convicted.
Pete Aguilar, chair of the House Democratic caucus, called for Mr Menendez to resign during a news conference with House Democratic leadership.
Mr Menendez has had “an incredible track record” of service to the people of New Jersey and of having “lifted up issues that the Latino community cares about”, Aguilar said.
“It doesn’t bring me or any of us joy to say that he should resign. But he should for the betterment of the Democratic Party. For the people of New Jersey. It’s better that he fights this trial outside of the halls of Congress.”
On Wednesday, the judge ordered him not to have contact outside of the presence of lawyers with his co-defendants except for his wife.
He also cannot have contact outside of the presence of lawyers with members of his Senate staff, foreign relations committee staff or political advisers who have personal knowledge about the facts of the case, though it is unclear how those restrictions would impact his work. -Guardian, Reuters, AP