Judge William Walls stopped proceedings twice on Thursday to admonish both prosecutors and defense attorneys about the relevance of their lines of questioning.
Walls first stopped J.P. Cooney, the deputy chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, during his direct questioning of the government's first witness: Jane Ruch, a supervisory intelligence analyst at the FBI's Newark division. Cooney was asking Ruch about email exchanges between Menendez, staffers and other associates about his April 2010 trip to Paris. The emails included descriptions of the accommodations and prices at the Park Hyatt in Paris.
The trip is a main element of the government's allegations against Menendez
. The Democratic senator from New Jersey allegedly accepted free, luxury vacations to both Paris and the Dominican Republic from his friend, Florida-based ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, in exchange for exerting his power as a senator to help various interests of Melgen's. (Menendez denies the charges.) Menendez had asked Melgen in an email to use Melgen's American Express points to book the trip.
Walls abruptly stopped the proceedings and asked the jury to leave. He then questioned the relevance of the detailed planning emails that Cooney had highlighted. Cooney tried to explain that the value of the room is "extraordinarily important" regarding Menendez's intent.
Walls then said that the price differences and accommodation differences between the rooms detailed in the emails were negligible, and that they had nothing to do with whether or not Melgen had bribed Menendez.
"I don't think it's a sin for him to want a limestone bath per se," Walls said. "One of my favorite aspects is the rain shower," referring to a detail in the emails.
He then cautioned the lawyers that he will be forced to interrupt arguments going forward if they do not show full relevance of their evidence.
Walls did just that later in the day.
Ten minutes into Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell's cross-examination of Ruch, Walls once again stopped the proceedings. Lowell had been questioning Ruch about whether Menendez had paid his own way to Paris for the trip.
Walls then asked both sides about the significance of the discussion about the email exchanges in regard to the detailed preparations for the senator's trip to Paris, including whether the group would have lunch or dinner. "Who cares in the context of this charge?" the judge asked.
Walls said the question at hand is whether Menendez solicited and use a $1,500 room paid for by a friend, and said that was not the point being made by the line of questioning for this witness.
"It's not going to be a tabloid trial," Walls said, repeating a line he used in court Wednesday.
Ruch's questioning concluded Thursday afternoon, and court will reconvene Monday morning.
While it is unclear who the government will call next as a witness, Melgen's attorney Kirk Ogrosky gave a preview of what is to come from the defense, saying Melgen's wife and daughter would both testify about Melgen and Menendez's deep friendship. He also showed family photos of Menendez and Melgen together in the Dominican Republic.
"I'm here to tell you today that friendship is absolutely a defense to bribery. ... There is no intent to bribe when you do things for friends because you love them like a brother," Ogrosky said.