Menendez Tries Again to Balance Trial Pace With Senate Votes

(Bloomberg) -- Senator Robert Menendez’s lawyers tried again to persuade the judge overseeing his bribery trial to adjust the calendar to accommodate key votes in Washington, arguing that failing to do so poses a “very real threat” to legislative independence. 

The New Jersey Democrat faces a trial beginning Sept. 6, just as Congress will take up matters such as the federal debt ceiling. His lawyers argued in a filing late Thursday that his constitutional right to confront witnesses at trial conflicts with his obligations to represent his constituents. 

U.S. District Judge William Walls rejected similar arguments made by Menendez lawyer Raymond Brown before jury selection on Aug. 22. Brown had asked to Walls push the trial back to late October, instruct jurors why Menendez wasn’t present if he was in Washington and halt the trial on select days when the senator was away.

Walls said no to each request and dared Brown to file written arguments with legal precedents supporting their constitutional case.

“I suggest it’s going to be a fruitless search,’’ Walls said.

Walls said Menendez is welcome to leave the trial to vote in Washington, but he wouldn’t explain his absences to the jury.

“Any defendant has a right to be present and any defendant has a right not to be present,’’ Walls said. “But to more or less color and say well, he is not present because he is doing an important thing, I’m not going to permit that.’’

Calendar Management

In their filing, Menendez’s lawyers again asked the judge to alter the schedule.

“Given this very real threat to legislative independence, the Supreme Court’s separation of powers doctrine provides additional grounds for this court to take narrowly tailored measures that avoid such interference without significantly delaying the adjudication of this trial,’’ Menendez’s lawyer wrote.

Menendez is accused of taking illegal payments from a top donor seeking help with government agencies, and both men face a four-day-a-week trial in Newark, New Jersey.

“A critical aspect of our criminal justice system is that every defendant should be treated equally and no defendant should receive special treatment based on power, position or privilege," Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in an email. "The department is fully prepared to proceed to trial on Sept. 6.”

Senator’s Bribery Case May Hinge on ‘Official Acts’ Meaning
Menendez faces trial with a Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, on charges of bribery, conspiracy and honest-services fraud. Prosecutors say Melgen gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to support Menendez, and lavished him with trips on private jets and a three-night stay at a Paris hotel valued at $4,934. Menendez is accused of improperly helping Melgen in a Medicare overbilling dispute, a contract standoff with the Dominican Republic, and visa applications for three of the doctor’s girlfriends.

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