Sen. Menendez using campaign money for defense website

(AP) -- Allies of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez have launched a coordinated public relations campaign to support him through what is likely to be a long and expensive legal fight over federal corruption charges.



Menendez pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges this week that he accepted nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a longtime friend in exchange for a stream of political favors.



But his supporters have been working quietly behind the scenes since news reports emerged in March suggesting an indictment was imminent.



Their efforts became apparent beginning Wednesday, when supporting statements began pouring into reporters' inboxes shortly after the 14-count indictment was filed.



The New Jersey Democratic State Committee has sent at least six news releases since then with statements from nearly three dozen local and national officials and community leaders. The releases include the hashtag #IStandWithBob and advertised a new @IStandWithBob Twitter account that had tweeted more than 70 times by Thursday evening.



There's also a slick website, istandwithbob.com, that includes a roundup of positive statements and news coverage as well as a video from Menendez responding to the charges. It also has an "FAQ" with questions like, "What does it mean to be indicted?"



The response begins: "An indictment is the paper that prosecutors write and present in a grand jury where the Senator had no chance to respond or participate."



The site, which also seeks contributions, was paid for by the Menendez for Senate campaign committee, which has $1.45 million cash on hand, according to its most recent federal campaign filing. Visitors to menendezfornj.com are now redirected to the site.



A spokesman for Menendez, Steven Sandberg, said that the efforts -- including the outpouring of support from elected Democrats -- were organic.



"A lot of people wanted to show their support and provide statements and we were happy to take them," he said.



Still, he said, "I think it's pretty clear that we were prepared. The office was prepared and certainly the senator was prepared and is mounting a fight."



Much of the orchestration has been led by Michael Soliman, a longtime Menendez adviser who previously worked as the senator's state director and managed his 2012 re-election campaign.



Soliman, who now works for the firm Mercury Public Affairs, said that supporters started calling the senator, his office and his staff immediately after the story broke, asking how they could help.



"We were inundated and quite frankly overwhelmed with phone calls of outrage in support of the senator. So right away, naturally, with all of these phone calls, we said to ourselves: How do we capture this?" he said. "They wanted their voice to be heard, they wanted to help."



In addition to launching the website, he said he worked to help craft the officials' statements and provided allies with quotes and press clippings, as first reported by NJ.com. And he said the efforts would continue over the coming days and weeks.



There was other help as well, including a supporter-led Facebook page. George Kasimos, an advocate who founded the website StopFemaNow.com, helped to promote and attended a rally supporting Menendez on Wednesday evening. He said the senator had helped victims of Superstorm Sandy immensely.



"Look, I'm a Jersey guy," he said Thursday. "If you do something for me, I will do something for you. I've got your back."



___



Associated Press writers Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.


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