Judge streamlines Menendez corruption charges

U.S. District Judge William H. Walls

The judge who presided over the corruption trial of US Senator Robert Menendez dismissed seven of the 18 criminal charges included in the federal indictment, and removed himself from further involvement in the case.

The counts dismissed by U.S. District Judge William H. Walls concern allegations that $660,000 in campaign contributions to the New Jersey Democrat by Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen constituted bribery.

Last week, the Justice Department said it would seek to re-try Menendez and Melgen after Walls declared the jury deadlocked after individually interviewing members and ended the corruption trial in a mistrial in November.

The ruling came on a defense motion to acquit Menendez and Melgen on all 18 counts, but it might not make matters easier for lawyers hoping to exonerate the defendants. Walls ruled that the defendants could be found guilty on the remaining counts, bringing to mind something he said at the start of the 11-week trial that ended in a hung jury shortly before Thanksgiving.

“There’s a great World War II movie that teaches a lesson that I try to get across to counsel, as well as my clerks,” Walls said as the first week of the trial came to a close. “It’s the expression I use regularly, the movie is called, ‘A Bridge Too Far.’ … So, don’t push your luck with your adversary so they say look, you know, you are greedy.”

As a result of Walls’s decision, the government may still pursue 11 counts against Menendez and Melgen, including bribery and fraud.

The senator also faces one count of making false statements for allegedly lying on Senate disclosure forms.

Prosecutors said Menendez took gifts from Melgen, including a luxury hotel stay, private jet flights and campaign donations, in exchange for which he tried to help Melgen get U.S. visas for his girlfriends, intervened in the eye doctor’s $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare and assisted with a port security contract of Melgen’s in the Dominican Republic.

Walls said evidence should be presented to a new jury about charges that luxury trips to Paris and the Caribbean were given to Menendez as part of a corrupt bargain, as well as allegations that Menendez intentionally failed to report the value of those gifts as required on his financial disclosure forms.

 

“All of Menendez’s alleged official acts occurred during the relatively short period of January 2006 through January 2013, and during the same period Melgen gave Menendez a stay in an upscale Parisian hotel, various flights without cost, and stays at Melgen’s villa in the Dominican Republic,” Walls wrote in his opinion. “A rational juror could conclude from the activities of these defendants there was an implicit agreement to exchange things of value for official acts.”

Menendez and Melgen were indicted in April 2015 on charges they had a corrupt deal under which the Florida ophthalmologist provided New Jersey’s senator with campaign contributions, luxury travel and accommodations, plus other gifts in exchange for his official influence to the eye doctor both personally and financially.

Menendez intervened with federal officials to obtain visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, sought to convince Medicare officials to back off on $9 million Melgen had overcharged the government; and pressured the Dominican government not to employ an alternative that would have negated a cargo screening contract held by a company Melgen owned.

Walls said that although it was clear Menendez had advocated for Melgen in the Medicare dispute, the government did not prove his action was connected to a $300,000 contribution Melgen gave to a super PAC that supported his 2012 re-election effort.

“There is no evidence the defendants actually met at the fundraiser or, if they did, what if anything they talked about,” Walls wrote. “A single meeting before the official act and political contribution, without more, is not sufficient evidence from which a jury might infer an explicit quid pro quo.”

US Senator Robert Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen remain accused of bribery and fraud.

If the government follows through on a retrial, it could complicate Menendez’ re-election plans. The senator’s seat is up in November and he has given indications he will run again, perhaps facing a serious contest in the primary.

When he came back to the Senate in December, the lawmaker said he doubted prosecutors would continue to pursue the case — but if they did, he added: “Bring it on.”

On January 19, public corruption prosecutors from the Justice Department filed notice saying they want a retrial “at the earliest possible date.”

The first trial damaged his standing in the state. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Nov. 30 — just days after the mistrial — found a majority of New Jersey voters said he should not be reelected. Forty-nine percent of respondents said Menendez should resign.

No Republican challenger has emerged to take on Menendez, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006, but some progressive Democrats are weighing a challenge.

“Melgen’s political contributions may not be considered bribes because politicians like Bob Menendez have not written laws that clearly define bribery,” said Lisa McCormick, of the group Democrats for Change. “In effect, bribery is legal under the Citizens United Supreme Court verdict and Congress would rather take big money than break the addiction that is killing democracy.”

 

The mistrial was a setback for the Justice Department, whose grounds for bringing public corruption cases has been curtailed by a recent Supreme Court decision. Some legal experts have said an ultimate loss in the Menendez case could lead to a further erosion of the Justice Department’s ability to pursue such prosecutions.

Menendez borrowed a page from President Donald Trump, who has sharply criticized the FBI and Justice Department for how they had pursued him.

The New Jersey lawmaker suggested to reporters in December that his Hispanic heritage — and his roots in Hudson County, an area with a history of political corruption — played a role in selecting him for prosecution.

“We have nearly 10 different individuals who had nothing to do with the case, who were gone to and were asked, ‘What can you give us on Menendez?’?” the senator said. “Forget about me — the Department of Justice is not supposed to be doing that, and its agents are not supposed to be doing that. The only thing I can possibly think of is that you can’t believe that a Latino kid who grew up poor and ultimately comes from this county that has a history — somehow, how does he get to be a U.S. senator without doing things that are wrong?”

But Menendez now  faces three bribery counts related to flights he took on Melgen’s private plane and a Paris hotel suite the doctor paid for with American Express points. He faces two counts of honest services fraud, one count of conspiracy, one count of interstate travel to carry out bribery and one count of making false statements on his congressional financial disclosures to conceal the crimes.

Melgen faces the same charges except for the false statements accusation. The fraud charges carry the most serious penalty of up to 20 years in prison.


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