NEW YORK -- U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey pleaded innocent on Wednesday to federal charges accusing him of pocketing bribes of cash and gold bars in exchange for wielding his political influence to secretly advance Egyptian interests and do favors for local businessmen.
Menendez led his wife, Nadine, who also pleaded innocent in the case, by the hand out of the courtroom after the brief hearing in the lower Manhattan federal courthouse days after prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging vast corruption by the Democrat. The couple ignored shouted questions from reporters as they left the courthouse. Menendez gave a tight-lipped smile as he stepped into a car.
A defiant Menendez has said allegations that he abused his power to line his pockets are baseless. He has said he is confident he will be exonerated and has no intention of leaving the Senate.
Still, calls for Menendez to resign continued to mount on Wednesday with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, saying "he should step down." More than half of Senate Democrats have now said that Menendez should resign, including fellow New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, speaking to reporters hours after Menendez's court appearance, did not call for Menendez to resign and said Menendez would address his Democratic colleagues today. "We all know that senators -- for senators, there's a much much higher standard. And clearly, when you read the indictment, Sen. Menendez fell way, way below that standard," said Schumer, D-N.Y.
Menendez spoke in court only when each defendant stood to acknowledge that they understood the charges against them. A lawyer entered the not guilty plea for Menendez, who was forced to step down as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being indicted.
The senator was released on a $100,000 bond, and he must surrender any personal passports but will be allowed to keep an official passport that would allow him to travel outside the U.S. for government business. 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 talk about the case, 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 allegations. It was not immediately clear how those restrictions would affect his work.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin was approved Wednesday as the new chairman of the Foreign Relations panel.
It's the second corruption case in a decade against Menendez, whose last trial involving different allegations ended with jurors failing to reach a verdict in 2017.
Authorities say they found nearly $500,000 in cash, much of it hidden in clothing and closets, as well as more than $100,000 in gold bars in a search of the New Jersey home Menendez, 69, shares with his wife.
Menendez's wife was released on a $250,000 bond secured by her home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prosecutors say she played a key role in collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bribes from three New Jersey businessmen seeking help from the longtime lawmaker.
Prosecutors allege repeated actions by Menendez to benefit the authoritarian government of Egypt. They say Menendez also tried to interfere in criminal investigations involving associates, in one case pushing to install in New Jersey a federal prosecutor who he believed he could influence to derail a case.
Two of the businessmen, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes, also pleaded not guilty and were freed pending trial. They did not speak to reporters as they left the courthouse and their attorneys also declined to comment.
The third, Wael Hana, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges including conspiracy to commit bribery. Hana was arrested at Kennedy Airport on Tuesday after returning voluntarily from Egypt to face the charges and was freed pending trial.
Menendez, in his first public remarks after last week's indictment, said on Monday that the cash found in his home was drawn from his personal savings accounts over the years and that he kept it on hand for emergencies.
One of the envelopes full of cash found at his home, however, bore Daibes' DNA and was marked with the real estate developer's return address, according to prosecutors.