After six weeks, government prosecutors in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.
The trial began more than two years after Menendez was indicted on a litany of bribery and corruption charges in a case that could dramatically change the dynamics of the Senate.
The New Jersey Democrat is accused of accepting lavish personal gifts, expensive meals and golf outings from Dr. Salomon Melgen—as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations—in exchange for using the power of his office to lobby for his wealthy benefactor’s extensive financial and personal interests in Washington.
Melgen, who was convicted in April in a separate $105 million Medicare fraud case in Florida, was charged along with Menendez and is on trial as well.
After a stream of witnesses that included jet pilots, former congressional staffers, federal officials, and one ex-senator, the government’s case ended with testimony from FBI agent Alan Mohl.
Mohl spent two days reading the jury from emails exchanged by the senator and his staff along with other documents collected in the investigation that show Menendez was determined to use his position to help his friend and donor.
“Dr. Melgen is still in the non-litigant stage, so we should determine who has the best juice at [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services],” Menendez wrote to chief of staff Daniel O’Brien in August 2009.
As Melgen’s appeal of detrimental rulings played out, Alan Reider, a Melgen lobbyist, told Menendez staffers that he believed then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had the authority to make the case go away.
Sebelius testified about a meeting she had with Menendez and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2012 that prosecutors say was the culmination of the New Jersey lawmaker’s three-year effort to get special treatment for his friend and benefactor.
Like every other official he contacted, she declined to intervene in the dispute involving Melgen’s practice of “multi-dosing” an expensive eye drug — by splitting single vials of medication into multiple doses and billing Medicare for more than one vial.
At the time, Medicare claimed Melgen overbilled the agency $8.9 million. He was later convicted of scamming the agencies out of more than $100 million.
When prosecutors said they were done showing evidence to the jury, Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell moved to dismiss the case based on the “government’s lack of satisfying the burden of proof.”
U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls approved a trial calendar that would have allowed the case to continue through Thanksgiving.
“Very few jury trials are longer than a week, 10 days,” said Greg Hurley, an attorney and analyst with the Virginia-based Center for Jury Studies, who noted that more than 90 percent of criminal defendants in the federal court system choose to plead guilty rather than taking a case to go to trial.
Over 18 days of testimony from 35 witnesses, prosecutors have tried to establish a “quid pro quo” existed that makes gifts from the eye doctor bribery intended to induce support from the lawmaker.
“This case is about a corrupt politician who sold his Senate office for a life of luxury he couldn’t afford,” said prosecutor Peter Koski. “And a greedy doctor who put that politician on his payroll for when he needed the services of a United States senator.”
Observers say the defense is expected to paint those gifts as tokens given among friends, but the pressure exerted to help the doctor profit could be hard to overcome.
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