Menendez Sold His Office, U.S. Argues Before Jury Gets Case

(Bloomberg) -- Senator Robert Menendez sold his office to a top donor, prosecutors argued at the end of a corruption trial that could strengthen the Republican grip on Congress if the New Jersey Democrat is convicted.

The evidence shows Menendez corruptly took gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who lavished him with trips on his private jet, a vacation in Paris and about $750,000 in campaign contributions, Justice Department attorney J.P. Cooney said Thursday.

In exchange, Cooney said, the lawmaker intervened on behalf of the doctor seeking to resolve an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a contract standoff in the Dominican Republic. He also helped him secure visas for four women. Menendez then covered up his actions and lied to the media and on ethics forms, Cooney said.

Menendez “wanted to hide that he was Dr. Melgen’s personal United States senator,” Cooney said in summarizing the evidence in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, where the trial began Sept. 6. The prosecutor said public officials should work for constituents, “not for a wealthy doctor who lavished him with gifts and wrote jaw-dropping” campaign contributions.

Menendez’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, is scheduled to give his summation on Nov. 6.

During a break in the trial Thursday, Menendez was seen praying with members of the clergy. He got choked up when asked about it outside the courthouse. He said he is a “firm believer in God” and that he had felt the Holy Spirit.

“It is that faith that has sustained me here for the last eight, nine weeks,” Menendez said. “It is that faith I believe will ultimately render a verdict of not guilty. Between that faith and my family, I’ve been a very blessed man.”

The prosecutor also sought to counter defense claims that Menendez paid his own way to Florida before he boarded Melgen’s jet. "It’s like saying Springsteen front-row tickets can’t be a bribe" if someone paid his own way to the concert, Cooney said.

Defense Side

Melgen’s attorney argued that the government had cherry-picked events to create a misleading narrative, while failing to present any evidence of a corrupt agreement, as is required.

"They’re lying to you," Kirk Ogrosky, an attorney for Melgen, told the jury, referring to the prosecutors. "I’ve shown you why you can’t trust anything the government is telling you in this case."

Ogrosky pointed to the government’s questioning of a Commerce Department trade specialist as an example of how prosecutors had tried to twist facts. Prosecutors "took a person in a room and showed him an email so many times that he was willing to say whatever they wanted," he said. The trade specialist was later contradicted by another witness.

Menendez argued broader policy questions rather than Melgen’s specific problems when he met with executive branch officials, according to the defense lawyers. They further criticized prosecutors for offering no cooperating witnesses or tape recordings to bolster their circumstantial case.

Claims Innocence

The government has repeatedly told jurors "You know this. You know that,” Ogrosky said. “Look at the evidence. These men are innocent."

A conviction of Menendez, 63, may change the composition of the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 of 100 seats. If he resigns, outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie could replace him. If he doesn’t step down, two-thirds of Senate must agree to oust him.

Cooney disputed the defense claims about their friendship. He ridiculed Menendez’s three-night stay at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome in 2010 after Melgen covered the $4,934 bill with American Express reward points. The senator said he intended to repay the doctor.

“Dr. Melgen fulfilled Senator Menendez’s blatant request for a bribe,” Cooney said. The only way that Menendez intended to repay Melgen was “measured in power and official action, not in American Express rewards points.”

After joining the House of Representatives in 1993, Menendez moved to the Senate in 2006 and is considered one of the leading Hispanic lawmakers in Congress. He also is charged with making false statements for failing to disclose Melgen’s gifts on his Senate ethics forms.

Neither Menendez nor Melgen testified at trial. Two of Menendez’s colleagues, Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, testified to his good character.

The case is the first major bribery trial since a 2016 Supreme Court decision that overturned the conviction of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and narrowed how prosecutors could define “official acts” in public corruption cases.

The senator’s lawyers have laid the groundwork for an appeal, saying U.S. District Judge William Walls erred repeatedly in his rulings on the law and what evidence jurors could hear.

In instructing jurors on the law, Walls was careful to reflect language from the Supreme Court decision, saying the panel must identify a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” involving the senator’s exercise of power in a corrupt agreement.

Both men are charged with bribery, honest services fraud, conspiracy, and Travel Act violations, while Menendez also faces the false statements charge.

The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).

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