Menendez Staff Aided Donor in Visa Quest by Women, Jury Told

(Bloomberg) -- A former staff member for U.S. Senator Robert Menendez told a jury in the politician’s corruption trial that he helped a Brazilian woman and two sisters from the Dominican Republic get visas so they could help visit the senator’s co-defendant, a close friend and campaign donor.

Mark Lopes, the senator’s former foreign policy adviser, testified that when he emailed Menendez in 2008 to confirm whether he should send the State Department a letter in support of the Brazilian woman’s visa application, the senator replied the same day.

“Yes. As well as call if necessary,” Menendez wrote, according to Lopes’s testimony and email evidence shown to jurors Monday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey.

Menendez and Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, are accused of corruption with prosecutors claiming the senator traded official favors for Melgen in exchange for hotel stays, private jet trips and other luxuries.

Prosecutors called Lopes to help show that several members of his staff were involved in helping Melgen obtain visas so female friends could visit the U.S. The Brazilian woman, a model, actress and lawyer, obtained the visa a day after Lopes sent his letter to the State Department, according to the indictment. That indictment characterizes her as “Girlfriend 1,” who had a romantic relationship with Melgen. 


But prosecutor J.P. Cooney and Lopes never referred to her as a girlfriend, in apparent deference to a tongue-lashing that U.S. District Judge William Walls gave Cooney last week. The judge told Cooney his line of questioning threatened to turn the proceeding into a “tabloid” trial. And Walls erupted when the prosecutor questioned an FBI analyst about a $1,500-a-night hotel suite in Paris where Menendez stayed with a woman after Melgen picked up the bill. 

On Monday, Walls interrupted the proceedings several times to instruct lawyers about the fine points of criminal procedure, including how to avoid asking leading questions of witnesses.

Lopes also testified about a Dominican woman and her sister, then 22 and 18, who were initially denied visas before the senator’s staff intervened. The indictment referred to the older woman as a model who began a romantic relationship in 2005 with Melgen before she sought a visa three years later.

“Hello my love,” the woman wrote, in an email to Melgen that is detailed in the indictment. “I write to remind you that you need to send me a copy of what Senator Bob Menendez’s office sent you, which I need for the embassy.”

Neither Lopes nor prosecutors mentioned the nature of Melgen’s relationship with the woman. He said he spent 15 to 30 minutes helping obtain the visas that Melgen had sought and that his staff probably spent two to three hours on the matter. 

Credit-Card Points

Earlier in the day, the government called an American Express executive to help build its case that in exchange for Menendez’s intervention, the senator asked Melgen to pay for a three-night stay in a Paris hotel room in March 2010 worth almost $5,000. The doctor paid for the three-night stay with 649,611 American Express credit-card points, according to prosecutors.

Menendez promised in an email to reimburse the points. But a prosecutor suggested it would never happen -- the senator used almost all his in 2013 to get a Weber grill. J.P. Cooney, a federal prosecutor, said that at the rate Menendez was accumulating points on his own American Express card, it would have taken the senator 30 years to earn enough points to pay for the room.

The government told jurors in its opening statement that Menendez relied on his relationship with Melgen to live a lifestyle he couldn’t afford on his own.

Menendez and Melgen don’t dispute that they exchanged things of value over several years, including favors by the senator and luxury travel perks by the doctor. But they have argued, in pre-trial filings and opening statements, that the exchanges were part of a long-term friendship and don’t constitute bribes.

Before the trial began Monday, Menendez attended a ceremony in nearby West Orange, New Jersey, to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which killed more than 700 New Jersey residents. Despite the bribery case, Menendez has appeared publicly on a wide variety of issues in recent weeks.

The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-00155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).