Four witnesses testify on day four of Menendez trial

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

What’s happening in court is that the government is trying to establish that Sen. Bob Menendez and his wealthy friend, Salomon Melgen, did favors for one another.

What’s unclear at this point, and what they’re arguing about, is whether the favors were part of a “corrupt bargain,” as the government calls it, or just kind deeds between friends. The facts are not in dispute.

As defense lawyer Abbe Lowell articulated, “This case is not about what happened. It’s about why it happened.”

Four witnesses testified Tuesday. First was Mark Lopes, a former foreign policy advisor to Menendez. He seemed somewhat reluctant to be testifying at all.  Back in 2008, two sisters from the Dominican Republic, ages 18 and 22, were trying to visit Dr. Melgen in Florida. The State Department denied their visa applications. Melgen contacted Menendez, who instructed Lopes to “call the Ambassador [to the Dominican Republic] ASAP.”

Then, Menendez wrote to the ambassador saying, “Please give this [matter] all due consideration within the requirements of the law.” The sisters got a second interview and got their visas. The question was, how routine is this kind of intervention by a senator? The prosecution is trying to prove that it’s very rare. The defense, that congressional help in visa matters happens all the time.

The drama heightened when the government called one of those sisters to the witness stand. Rosiell Polanco Suero said she met Melgen in 2005 and they became friends. After her visa application was refused in 2008, she called Melgen.

“He said he’d try to fix it and he’d try to talk to the senator,” Suero told the court.

Indeed, it got fixed. Prosecutors walked the jury through every step of that process.

Next to the witness stand was another woman in her early 30s, Svitlana Buchyk, originally from the Ukraine, then Spain, now Los Angeles. She, too, described the 63-year-old Melgen as a friend, who helped her and her mother get tourist visas to the states.

She said Melgen always referred to Menendez as “hermano,” brother, and introduced him to her as “the man who helped get the visa.”

Finally, State Department official Joel Nantias testified about the inner workings of the visa process. The government tried to show how Melgen and Menendez abused that process by intervening with higher-ups. The defense got him to state that 11 million visa applications to the U.S. were filed last year, and congressional inquiries about individual cases numbered in the thousands.

The trial could run until November. The government calls the whole thing a bribery conspiracy. The defense calls it gift-giving between friends.