POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

After extensive deliberation, judge declares mistrial in Menendez corruption case

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Judge William Walls polled the jurors one by one in his chambers. Then he came out and declared a mistrial. Menendez’s lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell spoke first.

“After five years of a long and involved investigation and trial that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, with an army of prosecutors and FBI agents, with out 100 people interviewed in the United States and other countries, with more than two or three dozen grand jury witnesses, with more than a half a million documents that have been obtained by the government, with over 50 witnesses at a nine week trial, and with all the rulings that occurred in this court for the last nine weeks, this jury could not, would not, and did not return a verdict that validated any of the government’s charges. At the end of the day, the fundamental reason for that is that this is what happens when you put a real 25-year friendship on trial,” said Lowell.

A hung jury is not the same as an acquittal, but a mistrial was treated as a huge victory by the defense.

Menendez’s family and supporters hugged one another in the courtroom. Outside Menendez expressed his gratitude.

“First and above all, I want to thank God because it is by His grace that I was delivered from an unjust prosecution. I want to thank my children, Alicia, who is here everyday with me in court and who brought my lovely granddaughter, Evangelina, to New Jersey so that I could remember what I had to fight on for. My son, Rob, who testified on my behalf and then joined his sister in court, who kept me company and even let me beat him in a round of golf. I’m so blessed to have two great children and I love you so much I can’t [crying] … ” said Menendez.

After he recovered, Menendez ran through a long list of thank yous, including Abbe Lowell, whom he called America’s premier defense lawyer and Sen. Cory Booker, who testified as a character witness despite advice not to. Then he got something off his chest that seemed to have been eating at him.

“The way this case was started was wrong, the way it was investigated was wrong, the way it was prosecuted was wrong and the way it was tried was wrong, as well. Certain elements of the FBI and of our state cannot understand, or even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County can grow up to be a United States senator and be honest. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people have come to tell me that the FBI went to them and asked them ‘what can you give us on Menendez,’ That is not what the FBI and the Department of Justice is supposed to be doing. And they are not supposed to be leaking to the press during the early stages of their investigation, which violated my rights to a fair process. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but my mistakes were never a crime. I’ve learned through this process a lot about our system of justice. It is truly a system of justice you can afford. I understand why so many Americans feel that justice is elusive. But for supporters from across the country who believed in me, who knew who I am and what I stand for, I could never have afforded the millions of dollars this case has cost. So my gratitude to all those New Jerseyans and Americans from across the country who believed in me and helped me mount my legal defense against the millions of dollars spend by the overwhelming weight of the federal government. I’ve also learned about the incredible weight and power of the federal government and how it can crush you if it wants to. It gives me an even greater resolve to make sure that there is a check to that awesome power. Because where do I go to? What office or department of the federal government gives me back the past two and a half years of my life? Where do I go to to have the damage they sought to incur to my reputation, where is it, what department is it that replaces it? So let me share some final thoughts, to those who left me, who abandoned me in my darkest moment, I forgive you. To those who embraced me in my darkest moment, I love you. To those New Jerseyans who gave me the benefit of a doubt, I thank you. To those that have a doubt, I’m going to work harder than ever before so that there is no doubt. To those in the press who did their job and did it with professionalism, and even to some of you that are actually kind, where’s Dominic, I believe you showed others what a professional press is all about and why that freedom is so important to our society. To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” said Menendez.

The U.S. Justice Department now has to decide whether it wants to re-try the case from scratch. Lead prosecutor Peter Koski had no comment on that or Thursday’s ruling.

The big political question arising now is whether New Jersey will re-elect Menendez to the Senate in 2018. At the League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City, reporters put that to Senate President Steve Sweeney Thursday afternoon.

When asked if Sweeney would support him, he replied, “Absolutely, absolutely. You know, again, I’ve been accused of things that have been proved to be not true and you get a second chance. We have a system. I got accused of sexual harassment one time, big headlines in newspapers, and only three months later have a small story saying it wasn’t real. He was tried, they brought the changes and they couldn’t find him guilty. We should move on.”

Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen were accused of bribery, trading lavish gifts and contributions for official favors. Melgen’s attorney said it was his client who first reached out to the FBI for assistance.

“On that first call five years ago, he begged for help, he begged for justice. So we’re here today, we’d like to thank all of you who covered this case, we’d like to thank all of you who listened to the evidence. I don’t think anyone who listened to the evidence would conclude anything other than Dr. Melgen is innocent and we will go forward and continue to fight for Dr. Melgen,” said Ogrosky.

So, an ordeal for New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator is over, at least for now.