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New York Congressman Grimm pleads not guilty to federal fraud charges, calls case trumped up

U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm leaves federal court in New York, Monday, April 28, 2014. Grimm was taken into custody Monday to face federal charges following a two-year investigation of his campaign financing. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm leaves federal court in New York, Monday, April 28, 2014. Grimm was taken into custody Monday to face federal charges following a two-year investigation of his campaign financing. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - A U.S. congressman was indicted Monday on federal mail, wire and tax fraud charges stemming from a restaurant he operated before entering Congress, a case the former FBI agent says is trumped up.

The indictment follows a two-year investigation of Staten Island Republican Michael Grimm's campaign financing. Grimm was arrested Monday morning and pleaded not guilty to a 20-count federal indictment. He was released on $400,000 bail.

Grimm claims the government framed him. He says investigators couldn't make a campaign finance case against him stick, so they trumped up the fraud accusations.

He said he is the victim of a "political witch hunt."

"I'm going to fight tooth and nail until I am exonerated," he said.

Grimm is charged with engaging in schemes to underreport wages for restaurant workers, including some who were in the country illegally. He is accused of concealing more than $1 million in sales and wages.

Authorities said that when he was deposed by an attorney representing former employees in a lawsuit, Grimm lied under oath about his allegedly fraudulent business practices.

Authorities allege the fraud occurred from 2007 to 2010. Grimm, a former FBI agent who spent a decade working for the bureau before leaving in the mid-2000s to pursue private business interests, was elected in 2010 and took office in 2011.

"Rep. Grimm billed himself as a patriot and an American hero," said George Venizelos, head of the FBI's New York office. "... But Rep. Grimm was anything but an upstanding citizen. He cheated, evaded and then lied."

For two years, investigators had been examining his fundraising in the 2010 race and his involvement in the Manhattan restaurant. A House Ethics Committee announced in November that Grimm was under investigation for possible campaign finance violations.

"From the beginning, the government has pursued a politically driven vendetta against Congressman Grimm and not an independent search for the truth," Grimm's attorney, William McGinley, said in a statement Friday. "Congressman Grimm asserts his innocence of any wrongdoing."

After the House Ethics Committee announced last fall that Grimm was under investigation, the panel said it would defer its inquiry because of a separate Department of Justice investigation.

Also on Monday, Grimm stepped down from the House Financial Services Committee. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the decision was appropriate. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Boehner saying Grimm should be removed from the committee.

Grimm, 44, made headlines in January after confronting a New York City cable news station reporter who tried to question him about a long-running FBI investigation into campaign finance while they were on a balcony in the Capitol.

After reporter Michael Scotto finished his report, Grimm stormed back, leaned into him and said: "Let me be clear to you. If you ever do that to me again, I'll throw you off this (expletive) balcony."

During the 2010 race, Grimm acknowledged receiving $250,000 to $300,000 in contributions from followers of an Israeli rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto. Some members of Pinto's congregation subsequently said they made tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions, including gifts passed through straw donors.

Grimm has denied knowledge of any improprieties. The Israeli businessman who had served as Grimm's liaison to Pinto's followers, Ofer Biton, pleaded guilty in August to an immigration fraud charge.

Three days after that guilty plea, the FBI filed a sealed criminal complaint accusing a Houston woman named Diana Durand, who had been romantically involved with Grimm, of using straw donors to make illegal campaign contributions.

On Friday, Durand was indicted in Brooklyn on those charges. She also was charged with making false statements to the FBI when she said she didn't reimburse straw donors for their contributions to Grimm's campaign.

Grimm once was an investor in an Upper East Side health food restaurant that has been accused in a lawsuit of cheating its workers and fined by the state for failing to carry workers' compensation. He has said he sold his interest in 2009.

A House member who has been indicted does not lose any rights or privileges under federal law or the chamber's rules, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Rules used by the two major political parties require indicted committee or subcommittee chairmen, or members of a party's leadership, to temporarily step aside. Grimm is not a chairman or a member of the leadership.

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