POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Federal corruption trial of Sen. Menendez begins

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Wednesday’s opening arguments presented very contradictory views of the facts in the Sen. Bob Menendez case.

The government laid out what it called a seven-year bribery scheme between the senator and his co-defendant, Salomon Melgen.

The defense said Menendez and Melgen have been close friends for 20 years and if Menendez acted to help his friend, it was not about money.

Menendez arrived at the federal courthouse in Newark flanked by his son and daughter. He delivered what an aide said will be his final remarks until the trial ends.

“I have committed my entire adult life, since I was 19, to fighting for the people of New Jersey. Never, not once, not once, have I dishonored my public office,” the senator said. “I have never backed away from a fight that I didn’t believe was right, even if it meant opposing my own president or my own party. That’s simply who I am, and I’m not going to stop now. … Finally, I appreciate my family, my son and daughter being here with me today. I appreciate all of my supporters, who have stood by me as I try to clear my name. I am thankful for the countless New Jerseyans that have either called me or called my office to say they have my back as I have had theirs. I started my public career fighting corruption. That’s how I started. And I have always acted in accordance with the law.”

Menendez is accused of accepting gifts, trips and campaign contributions from Melgen in return for official action. Specifically, for helping Melgen with a Medicare fraud charge against him, for helping him with a cargo screening contract in the Dominican Republic that made Melgen rich and for help in getting visas for three foreign girlfriends of Melgen’s.

“He sold his office … The reason he received all those flights, vacations, and campaign contributions is because he was being bribed,” noted Federal Prosecutor Peter Koski to the jury.

Koski questioned why a New Jersey senator would help a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist and concluded it was for the money

Then, Abbe Lowell, Menendez’s defense attorney, spoke. He said there is one word that cuts through all the documents the jury will see in this case, and that word is “friendship.”

“Acting out of friendship is not uncommon, is not corrupt and is not a crime,” he told the jury.

He described a 20-year friendship between two Hispanic-American success stories. They spent birthdays and holidays together, he said.

Where the government saw Menendez helping Melgen with a Medicare fraud accusation, the defense said Menendez was simply pushing back on a policy he disagreed with.

Where the government saw Menendez pressuring the state department for Melgen’s cargo screening contract, the defense said the senator had real concerns about the security of cargo entering the United States.

Visas for girlfriends? Menendez has helped thousands of people with visa problems, especially Hispanics, said his attorney.

Non-disclosure of flights and vacations, the defense said the disclosure forms are complicated and the rules keep changing.

Campaign contributions? All legal and all reported, said the defense.

The prosecutor conceded there is no doubt the two men were friends.

“But that is no defense to what happened here. Friends can commit crimes together. Friends can exchange bribes together. There is no friendship exception to bribery,” Koski said.

“Maybe the senator was too eager to help a friend, but that is not a crime,” said the defense.

The defense also said Menendez often gave gifts to Melgen’s family and that there was never a quid pro quo between the two men.

The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. It ended Wednesday with Melgen’s lawyer telling the jury prosecutors make mistakes.