by MATT FRIEDMAN and RYAN HUTCHINS · September 6, 2017
The trial threatens to end the career of one of New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats and could upend the delicate balance of power in the Senate. | Getty
NEWARK — The corruption trial of Sen. Robert Menendez is expected to last at least six weeks — and if the first day was any indication, they won’t be boring.
The trial had barely started Wednesday before U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls was telling a Menendez defense lawyer to “shut up” as they sparred over whether Walls had “disparaged” the defense.
Prosecutors charged that Menendez and his co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, had a corrupt relationship in which Menendez acted as “Melgen’s personal senator,” in return for “a lifestyle that reads like a travel brochure for the rich and the famous.” The defense sought to portray the pair as nothing more than soulmates — just dear friends who call each other “brothers” and “hermanos.”
The trial, which resumes Thursday morning in Newark, is being closely watched not just in New Jersey — where Menendez’s influence is spread from the highest to lowest levels in politics — but also in Washington. It threatens to end the career of one of New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats and could upend the delicate balance of power in the Senate.
Menendez, 63, is charged with doing official favors for Melgen in exchange for luxurious vacations, private jet flights and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
In their opening arguments, prosecutors claimed Melgen provided Menendez with about $750,000 in political contributions to super PACs, a Menendez legal defense fund to fight a recall attempt and local Democratic organizations, all in exchange for official favors.
Lead federal prosecutor Peter Koski laid out for the jury details of Menendez’s stays at luxury hotels paid for by Melgen (in one case with 650,000 American Express points), stays at Melgen’s luxury condominium in the Dominican Republic, and free flights aboard Melgen’s private jet. In exchange, Koski said, Menendez “went to bat” for Melgen — who lived 1,000 miles from New Jersey — by pressuring officials at the highest levels of government to benefit Melgen.
“All of this to enrich one man who didn’t even live in the state Senator Menendez was elected to represent. Make no mistake about it, Robert Menendez was Salomon Melgen’s personal United States senator,” Koski said.
Although Menendez and Melgen claimed to be close friends, Koski noted that they did not grow up together. Rather, he said, they met at a political fundraiser “at a time in their lives when one had money and the other had power.” Their relationship, he said, would blossom into one involving “the unmistakable exchange of one man’s wealth for the other man’s influence.”
Koski outlined how donations Melgen made that allegedly benefited Menendez often coincided with official favors Menendez allegedly took on Melgen’s behalf.
The defense countered that the two frequently shared ideas on policy and politics and had discussions that sometimes led Menendez to raise issues Melgen had brought up — but that it never amounted to a bribe.
Despite the fact they met at a political fundraiser 25 years ago, Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell said, the relationship between Menendez and Melgen had blossomed into a deep friendship.
“You will see they attended family events like weddings and even the funerals of parents, and they celebrated birthdays and holidays together, too,” Lowell said.
Menendez and Melgen were in regular contact for years, sharing thoughts about news stories they had read or discussing their families. Melgen is one of just three or four close friends that Menendez has, Lowell said.
“Surprisingly, even though he’s a public official, you will hear that Senator Menendez is a rather private person,” Lowell told the jury.
Menendez is accused of seeking to intercede on Melgen’s behalf with high ranking officials in the Department of Health and Human Services when Melgen was enmeshed in an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute. He’s accused of pressuring State Department officials to convince the Dominican Republic to honor a port security contract held by a company Melgen owned and worth up to $100 million, according to prosecutors. And, prosecutors say, he helped secure visas for three of Melgen’s former girlfriends, and one of their sisters.
But according to Lowell, Menendez had more than just Melgen in mind when he took those actions, even if Melgen helped spur Menendez to act.
For instance, Lowell said, Menendez was concerned the controversy at the heart of Melgen’s Medicare dispute — his use of vials of eye medicine for more than one dose — benefited the pharmaceutical industry. Melgen was convicted of overbilling the Medicare program millions of dollars for that drug.
“The only people who got more money out of the HHS policy was the pharmaceutical company,” Lowell said.
Menendez had a deep concern over port security intensified by 9/11, Lowell said.
And even though Menendez met with officials, Lowell said, he never exercised the power he actually had to benefit Melgen. Menendez, he said, “could have slipped a simple sentence into a piece of legislation in the middle of the night on (Health and Human Services) reimbursement.”
Lowell said prosecutors had ignored many times when Menendez flew to visit Melgen in the Dominican Republic on his own dime.
“The evidence here actually shows there was no quid pro quo. No this for that,” Lowell told the jury.
Melgen attorney Kirk Ogrosky told the jury that prosecutors themselves admitted that they didn’t have a smoking gun to charge Menendez and Melgen with bribery. Instead, he said, prosecutors were asking them to “assume.”
“When you look out at the world through a dirty, filthy window, everything you see looks dirty. And that’s what [prosecutors] did,” Ogrosky said. “What they’re left with is this case where they have to twist evidence to make it fit what they say. Where they have to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit their theory of the case.”
Before opening statements began, another Menendez attorney, Raymond Brown, took issue with a few lines from an opinion Walls released Sept. 1 denying Menendez’s attempt to recess the trial on days when the Senate has “critical” votes.
“Quite frankly, your honor, that language is extremely prejudicial to the defense and it comes from the court. I think the court has disparaged the defense,” Brown said.
Brown was not completely clear on which passage he was referring to, but it appears to be this part of Walls’ opinion: “The Court suspects that the trial strategy behind this motion, if granted, would be to impress the jurors with the public importance of the defendant Senator and his duties. No other plausible reason comes to mind.” Brown said that Walls was “ speculative as to our motives.”
Brown and Walls then began talking over each other.
“Shut up for a moment if you don’t mind,” Walls said. “I said what I said [to] underscore what I considered the lack of merits in this motion.”
With Republicans holding a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate, an extra Republican vote could make a big difference in passing major legislation that at least a few Republicans oppose. If Menendez is removed from the Senate before mid-January — something that would take a two-thirds majority vote — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, would appoint an interim replacement. Noting this, Republican groups have already begun a pressure campaign on other senators to oust Menendez if he’s convicted.
New Jersey Democrats have remained loyal to Menendez. His colleague in the Senate, Cory Booker, showed up to the courthouse, hugged Menendez and sat through much of Wednesday’s proceeding.
Menendez, meanwhile, is striking a defiant posture and going about his business as normally as possible.
Less than two hours after day wrapped up, Menendez attended a rally in front of the nearby federal building in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program. Menendez vowed to fight in Congress to pass a “clean Dream Act,” and said he would be there for those who need protection.
“We can keep the dream alive,” he said, to cheers. “You are not alone.”