A woman the Justice Department claims received help getting a tourist visa thanks to Sen. Bob Menendez did no favors for prosecutors during the senator’s federal corruption trial in New Jersey Tuesday, telling the jury the prosecution made her testify.
Prosecutors say that Menendez did political favors for his friend and co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for bribes – including securing travel visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends. Menendez denies the charges.
One of those former girlfriends, Svitlana Buchyk, was visibly uncomfortable Tuesday when called to the stand.
“Do you know why you are here?” Melgen’s defense attorney, Kirk Ogrosky, asked Buchyk.
“No!” she shot back. “I don’t… . He’s just been forcing me to be here,” an apparent reference to lead Justice Department attorney, Peter Koski, who had questioned her minutes earlier.
Koski tried to clean up the “misimpression,” but Buchyk remained largely unhelpful to the government’s case.
She said her mother needed surgery, which is why Melgen helped her get a tourist visa, and that Melgen had introduced Menendez as the person who helped her obtain her visa “in a joking way – it was nothing serious.” Buchyk further told the jurors that Melgen regularly referred to Menendez as his “brother” in Spanish – a theme commonly pressed by the defense team in the hopes of showing the two did favors for each other only as friends.
Judge keeps email under wraps
Earlier in court Tuesday, a revealing email from one of Menendez’s former aides put defense attorneys on their heels, but the judge agreed to keep the most damning portions from the jury.
The prosecution continued to zero in on Menendez allegedly putting in a good word for Rosiell Polanco Suero – one of Melgen’s former girlfriends – and her sister, with the ambassador for the Dominican Republic in 2008. The sisters’ visa applications were initially denied, but the pair were later re-interviewed by a different official, who reversed the decision to deny the visas.
In response, the defense team repeatedly sought to have Menendez’s former senior policy adviser, Mark Lopes, downplay the senator’s advocacy for visa applicants as routine and uneventful.
But the Justice Department raised an email Lopes sent to Menendez’s chief of staff in 2009, saying “RM (Robert Menendez) doesn’t need to be calling US ambassadors about stuff like that” and “it really degrades his reputation.”
US District Court Judge William Walls agreed with the defense team those particular lines were more prejudicial (and better understood as Lopes’ personal opinions) than relevant to the issues at hand after sparring at length with defense attorney Raymond Brown.
“You don’t even recognize you’ve won,” Walls told Brown, scolding him for continuing to bicker over the specific redactions to the email.
In the end, the jury was only permitted to see limited portions of Lopes’ email, including, “RM (Robert Menendez) is trying to help get visas for women in the DR (Dominican Republic) for Sal M(elgen),” before the prosecution moved on to its next witness.
CNN’s Sarah Jorgensen contributed to this report.