Accused Of Accepting Lavish Trips And Gifts, Sen. Menendez Goes On Trial

Sep 5, 2017
Originally published on September 5, 2017 12:10 pm

New Jersey's senior senator, Bob Menendez, is facing a dozen counts of bribery, conspiracy, and fraud charges in a corruption probe involving one of his close friends. The Democrat's trial begins Wednesday in federal court.

Prosecutors at the Justice Department accuse Menendez of accepting lavish gifts in exchange for using his political influence to help friend and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.

But Menendez denies the charges, claiming he was only doing what he would do for any constituent. "I'm angry and ready to fight," he said, after the indictment was handed down in 2015, "because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life."

The indictment outlines the alleged scheme: Melgen flew Menendez around on his private jet, paid for luxury trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic, and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions that benefited Menendez.

In exchange, the government claims, Menendez intervened on Melgen's behalf to sort out a shipping contract, secure immigrant visas for Melgen's girlfriends, and settle a multimillion-dollar Medicare billing dispute involving Melgen's ophthalmology practice.

The corruption case is a major political fall for a man who made his name fighting public corruption and became the first Latino to chair the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"He's a great role model," said Rep. Albio Sires, NJ-8. "Today, many of the people who are running for different offices in the area or in New Jersey — they can thank Bob Menendez for opening those doors."

Prosecutors will face an uphill battle at trial, though, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision issued after the indictment.

A unanimous ruling last year overturned the guilty verdict of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who had been convicted of receiving gifts in exchange for promoting a donor's dietary supplement.

The justices said McDonnell behaved distastefully by accepting gratuities from the same donor whose product he championed, but the Republican did not take what's known in government jargon as an "official act." Therefore, they said, he did not break the law.

"For example, if a senator received a gift of a Rolex in exchange for voting a particular way on a bill pending before Congress, that would be an official act," said former federal judge Stephen Orlofsky, now a partner at the law firm Blank Rome.

Menendez's defense team will likely claim that he never took an official action to benefit Melgen, and they may get a boost in that argument from the McDonnell decision. "It narrows the grounds on which a bribery conviction can be obtained," Orlofsky said, "so [prosecutors] have to prove more, for example, than setting up meetings."

Earlier this year Melgen was convicted on unrelated federal Medicare fraud charges. Some political analysts have suggested that prosecutors may ask Melgen to testify against Menendez in this case for a lighter sentence, but there is no evidence that has occurred.

The charges against Menendez come at a bad time for Democrats.

If Menendez is convicted and resigns before January, Republican Gov. Chris Christie would get to appoint his replacement. (Christie leaves office in January after reaching his two-term limit.)

President Trump's recent push to scrap the Affordable Care Act failed by only one vote in the Senate, so flipping Menendez's seat red could cripple Democratic efforts to block Trump's agenda going forward.

Still, supporters say the larger issue at stake is his legacy.

The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez became something of a local hero to the considerable Cuban community in northern New Jersey just outside New York City, an area nicknamed "Havana on the Hudson."

He was one of the most vocal critics of former President Obama's attempt to normalize relations with the island nation. Supports say standing up for Cubans has earned Menendez some enemies.

"There are a lot of people who wanted to get rid of him, to be done with him. He doesn't deserve this," said Union City, N.J. resident Sergio Gonzalez, who left Havana more than 30 years ago. "He's a good man, a man that has always done for Cubans, and fought for Cubans."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The federal corruption trial of New Jersey's senior senator starts tomorrow. Democrat Bob Menendez faces a dozen charges for his alleged role in a bribery scheme, a scheme involving one of his close friends. The senator denies wrongdoing, and as Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY reports, the outcome may turn on a Supreme Court decision in a different corruption trial from another state.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: From the moment the indictment was handed down in 2015, Senator Bob Menendez has been defiant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB MENENDEZ: I'm angry and ready to fight because today contradicts my public service career and my entire life.

HERNANDEZ: Tomorrow the two-term senator will finally have his day in court to contest the 12 counts of conspiracy, bribery and fraud charges he's facing. Prosecutors at the Justice Department are accusing Menendez of using his public office to help friend and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. They say Menendez intervened on Melgen's behalf to sort out a shipping contract, secure immigrant visas for Melgen's girlfriends and try to settle a multimillion-dollar Medicare billing dispute involving Melgen's ophthalmology practice.

In return, prosecutors say, Melgen flew Menendez around on his private jet, paid for trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions. Menendez denies the charges. He says he was only doing what he would do for any constituent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENENDEZ: I'm angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper.

HERNANDEZ: But prosecutors will be facing an uphill battle at trial. A Supreme Court decision last year overturned the guilty verdict of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell who was convicted of receiving gifts in exchange for promoting a donor's dietary supplement. The justices said McDonnell didn't break the law simply by setting up meetings. He would have had to take what's known in government jargon as an official act. Here's former federal Judge Stephen Orlofsky.

STEPHEN ORLOFSKY: For example, if a senator received a gift of a Rolex in exchange for voting a particular way on a bill pending before Congress, that would be an official act.

HERNANDEZ: Menendez's defense team will argue he never did that, and may get a boost from the McDonnell decision.

ORLOFSKY: It narrows the grounds on which a bribery conviction can be obtained. So they have to prove more, for example, than setting up meetings.

HERNANDEZ: Menendez has risen through the ranks of the Senate. He became the first Latino to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before stepping down due to the 2015 indictment, which is why the charges come at a bad time for Democrats. President Trump's effort to scrap the Affordable Care Act failed by only one vote in the Senate. But what happens to Menendez's seat if he's convicted and resigns remains unknown. Republican Governor Chris Christie may get to appoint a replacement, but if the seat opens after January, New Jersey will have a new governor who may appoint a Democrat.

Still, supporters say the larger issue at stake is Menendez's legacy. The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez's political rise has made him a local hero to the Cuban community in northern New Jersey. Cuban immigrant Sergio Gonzalez lives in Union City, where Menendez served as mayor.

SERGIO GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Menendez is a nice person. What happened is there are a lot of people who wanted to get rid of him, to be done with him. He doesn't deserve this. He's a good man, a man that has always done for Cubans and fought for Cubans.

HERNANDEZ: With his trial starting tomorrow, Menendez will be taking on a new fight all together. For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.