Sen. Bob Menendez is accused of engaging in a bribery scheme with a wealthy South Florida ophthalmologist, Salomon Melgen.
In exchange for free flights, luxury vacations and more than $700,000 in campaign contributions, the government alleges Menendez went to bat for Melgen with federal officials in two main areas:
One, to fend off an $8.9 million Medicare fraud complaint.
Two, to enhance the value of a cargo screening business in the Dominican Republic that Melgen had purchased as an investment.
The government also says Menendez helped get visas for three of Melgen’s girlfriends.
The Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. is prosecuting the case, not the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, to avoid conflicts of interest.
The defense team is led by high-powered D.C. Attorney, Abbe Lowell, and prominent New Jersey Attorney Raymond M. Brown.
They’re expected to argue that Menendez and Melgen have been friends for 20 years and that helping a friend is not the same as corruption, and that Menendez’s actions on behalf of a friend are protected by several legal doctrines and precedents.
The defense may also question whether the charges are political retribution by the Obama administration for Menendez’s positions on Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal.
For his part, Menendez has consistently maintained his innocence.
“I am convinced at the end of the day that I’m going to be exonerated,” the senator said at a press conference in July. “I’ve spent my entire life in public service and I have done it honorably throughout, and so nothing I have done is in any way illegal. And nothing I have done ultimately leads me to believe I will be anything but exonerated.”
Melgen will also stand trial with Menendez. In April, he was convicted of Medicare fraud in a Florida federal court. His sentencing was postponed until after the senator’s trial.
Newark Defense Attorney Eric Breslin says federal bribery law is evolving, largely because of the Supreme Court’s exoneration of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonell.
“We have the Supreme Court McDonnell decision in 2016 in terms of changing somewhat, what honest services fraud is and how it’s to be charged and how it’s to be prosecuted,” Breslin explained. “And, the cases that have come down since then, the Sheldon Silver case in New York, it’s a different world. That was a very, very important, life-altering case for those of us who do those cases. And so what exactly it means and how that holding applies to Menendez I think is fascinating.”
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. If the jury finds Menendez guilty, the political ramifications would be immense.
Republicans have a two-seat majority in the Senate. As observed in the recent health care struggle, a single vote switch can determine a bill’s fate.
Menendez would not be obliged to step down, but would face pressure to do so. Gov. Chris Christie would name a replacement if it happened while he’s still governor.
Or it could be the next governor, very possibly a Democrat, Phil Murphy.
It takes a two-thirds vote to expel a senator, so the 48 Democrats are unlikely to join such an effort while Christie is still in position to fill a vacancy.
Another attorney NJTV News interviewed said opening arguments usually set the two narratives, and that he who frames the debate wins the case.