Lawyers at Menendez trial haggle over judge’s charge to jury

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

On Wednesday, Judge William Walls is expected to charge the jury in Sen. Bob Menendez’s federal corruption trial. The judge and the lawyers spent Tuesday haggling over the wording of that charge. The jury got to stay home.

Walls said he will rely on the U.S. Supreme Court McDonnell decision in fashioning his jury charge. Bob McDonnell was the Republican governor of Virginia convicted of bribery. McDonnell had been convicted of accepting lavish gifts from a friend in return for official acts on the friend’s behalf. That’s exactly what Menendez is accused of.

In 2015, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction, stating the jury had not been properly instructed as to what qualified as an “official act.” The McDonnell decision ultimately narrowed the definition of “official acts.” And that’s what the lawyers and the judge hashed out Tuesday — the definition of an official act.

The indictment accuses Menendez of four officials acts: arranging visas for his friend Salomon Melgen’s foreign girlfriends; intervening with Medicare officials seeking millions of dollars from Melgen in alleged “overpayments”; lobbying the State Department for Melgen in a dispute with the government of the Dominican Republic over a cargo screening contract; and pressuring U.S. Customs and Border Protection not to donate its surplus screening equipment to the Dominican Port Authority.

“As far as this trial is concerned, we’re going to follow McDonnell as best we can,” said Walls.

Menendez convened meetings with those government agencies. The McDonnell decision says simply hosting a meeting does not constitute an official act. The defense says you also need a quid pro quo agreement to prove a bribery conspiracy, and that there is none here.

The prosecution relies on a theory called “stream of benefits,” where bribery exists if official acts are undertaken “as opportunities arise.”

As it stands now, the judge will charge the jury Wednesday. Closing arguments could begin Thursday and after that deliberations begin. The judge has decided the trial will meet on Friday this week for the first time.