NEWARK, N.J. — Unlike recent New Jersey corruption trials that have featured government cooperators spinning tales of money-laundering rabbis or politically motivated traffic jams, the bribery trial of Sen. Bob Menendez has featured flight logs, emails and testimony about the nuances of conversations the Democrat had with government officials.
The trial lacked a blockbuster witness, but prosecutors believe a steady stream of evidence will convince jurors that Menendez took gifts from a wealthy longtime friend in exchange for using his political influence to lobby for his pal’s business interests.
Menendez and the friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, are charged with conspiracy, bribery, fraud and related offenses. Menendez also is charged with making false statements for not disclosing the gifts on Senate ethics forms. Both men have pleaded not guilty and say they did nothing wrong.
The stakes are high: If Menendez is convicted he could face pressure to resign from the Senate, or could be voted out by a two-thirds majority. Were he to step down before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office in January, the Republican governor would have the authority to choose Menendez’s replacement.
Jurors received instructions from U.S. District Judge William Walls on Wednesday, and were to hear closing arguments on Thursday. The trial is in its ninth week.
THE PROSECUTION’S CASE
Prosecutors allege Melgen plied Menendez with gifts including flights on his private jet to the doctor’s home in in the Dominican Republic, a weekend at a luxury hotel in Punta Cana, and a stay at a $1,500-a-night Paris hotel.
They say these gifts, along with more than $600,000 in contributions to political organizations supporting Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, were inducements to get Menendez to pressure government officials to resolve two of Melgen’s major problems: an $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare and a stalled contract for port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic.
They also say Menendez interceded in the visa applications of three women purported to be Melgen’s girlfriends.
Defense attorneys say the gifts were an outgrowth of the two men’s friendship, and that Menendez regularly paid his own way to visit Melgen in the Dominican Republic dating back to the 1990s.
They attacked the government for allegedly using a “mix and match” strategy to tie flights Menendez took on Melgen’s private jet with meetings or conversations he had with government officials weeks or months later, some cases.
They also characterized Menendez’s meetings with officials as focusing on broader policy issues and not on Melgen’s specific disputes.
KEY EVIDENCE FOR PROSECUTORS
Prosecutors presented witnesses who characterized Menendez as pushing for changes to a Medicare policy that would have had a direct impact on Melgen’s billing dispute, and becoming angry when he met with resistance. A former Medicare official testified she understood Menendez to be acting on behalf of Melgen, even though he didn’t specifically mention Melgen during the discussions.
They also presented emails showing a Menendez staffer and Melgen’s son-in-law arranging a $60,000 contribution to a Democratic state committee supporting Menendez that occurred within days of Menendez’s meeting with a State Department official to discuss port security in the Dominican Republic.
The official, William Brownfield, testified he believed Menendez was seeking a resolution to the dispute as well as for the general goal of better port security.
Prosecutors also showed jurors Menendez’s Senate disclosure forms that didn’t mention the flights on Melgen’s plane or other gifts.
THE DEFENSE COUNTERS
Defense attorneys got Brownfield to partially contradict one of his staffers’ contentions that Menendez threatened him with a Senate hearing if he didn’t resolve the issues.
They offered jurors testimony and evidence that Menendez and his staffers discussed Medicare policy issues in preparation for his meetings with health officials, and showed jurors a chart listing flights Menendez took to the Dominican Republic and to Florida, where Melgen’s business is based, dating to the late 1990s.
The defense also sought to cast doubt on one of the bribery counts that centered on Menendez’s October 2010 trip to Florida, paid for by Melgen, by presenting testimony that it was part of Menendez’s duties as chair of a national Senate Democratic campaign committee.
Jurors sat through 28 days of testimony and heard jury instructions Wednesday.
Those instructions have taken on added importance since the definition of official bribery was narrowed by the Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
The ruling has been applied retroactively by courts to overturn the corruption convictions of several politicians based on incorrect jury instructions.
On Wednesday, Walls read some portions of his jury instructions directly from language in the McDonnell ruling. He told jurors they could find Menendez guilty even if they didn’t believe specific gifts were tied to specific actions. But he added those actions had to be on specific matters and not on broad policy issues, as the Supreme Court held in McDonnell.
He also told the panel it isn’t bribery if a gift is given solely out of friendship or some other legal purpose, but that a gift could be given both out of friendship and corrupt intent.