Prosecution opens new front in Menendez trial: Port security

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

The government has opened a new front in its prosecution of Sen. Bob Menendez introducing testimony about a port security contract he allegedly helped co-defendant Salamon Melgen with. Cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms, but Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron was there to get the details.

Melgen owned half of a company that had a contract to screen cargo in the Dominican Republic. When the U.S. State Department donated surplus x-ray equipment to the country, the contract became worthless and Melgen’s business lost value. On the witness stand Monday, a U.S. Commerce Department official recalled a meeting in 2012.

“Melgen’s lawyer wanted the equipment removed,” the official, Scott Smith, testified. “He said Melgen had a lot of political friends who could cause real problems for the Commerce Department.”

Federal prosecutor Monique Abrashami asked, “Did he refer to anyone in particular?”

“Objection!” shouted defense attorney Raymond Brown.

“I’ll allow it,” said Judge William Walls.

“Bob Menendez,” said Smith. “[Melgen’s lawyer] was very aggressive and threatening. He constantly brought up that he could be a real problem for the department.”

Ultimately, Melgen did not get his way with the contract, but the government says Menendez tried to intervene on behalf of his friend.

In opening statements, the defense showed jurors pictures of the friends together at Melgen’s Dominican Republic vacation home where they retreated often. The prosecution says the trips and free flights there, that Menendez received from Melgen, were in exchange for official favors and thus constitute bribery.

The defense has been trying to show that Menendez visited Melgen “all the time,” as a Menendez aide put it Monday, and bribery was not part of the equation.

Defense attorney Abbe Lowell brought out through testimony both Monday and last week that Menendez took 28 trips to visit Melgen since 1998. Twenty-two of those trips were from 2006 to 2013, the time period covered by the indictment, and that only six of those involved free flights on Melgen’s private jet. The defense says there is no quid pro quo to be found.

Lowell finished up cross-examination of an FBI agent Monday morning asking, “Did you ever see an email [to Menendez] that said, ‘There is the flight info, thanks for (those) visas?'”

“The e-mails said what the e-mails said, so, no,” admitted agent Alan Mohl, one of two case agents who led the investigation.

The trial continues Tuesday.