A federal judge in Newark denied Sen. Bob Menendez’s attempt to toss out the Justice Department’s bribery case against him Monday morning.
The trial, now in its seventh week, will turn to the defense case as lawyers for the New Jersey Democrat and Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy ophthalmologist from Florida, try to convince jurors that prosecutors have wrongly twisted a longtime friendship into an illegal bribery scheme.
The heart of the Justice Department’s case rests on accusations that Menendez accepted political contributions, free rides on private jets and a swanky hotel suite in Paris from Melgen in exchange for agreeing to pressure other high-level federal officials in the executive branch to help resolve his wealthy friend’s business problems – “official acts” prosecutors claim put Menendez on the hook under federal bribery law.
Judge William Walls continued to hear arguments from lawyers Monday morning about whether he should throw out the charges against the two men in light of a 2016 Supreme Court decision unanimously overturning former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s bribery conviction.
The defense team urged Walls that the prosecution’s overarching “stream of benefits” theory – where many gifts are exchanged for a variety of political favors over a period of several years – cannot survive post-McDonnell. Lawyers for the defense argued that the prosecution had to show a more direct link between a specific gift followed by a specific political favor.
Walls was unpersuaded, however, finding “a rational jury could conclude the defendants entered into a quid pro quo agreement.”
Appearing to read from a lengthy written opinion he drafted ahead of time, the judge ultimately concluded: “McDonnell is not antagonistic to the stream of benefits theory.”
“We are living in a real world of reality and common sense,” Walls said. “The jury will decide whose version of what happened or didn’t happen is more likely than not.”
Prosecutors had argued in court filings over the weekend that the McDonnell decision had no effect on the stream of benefits concept and courts have more recently reaffirmed it as a valid legal theory of bribery.
Later Monday, the defense called Menendez’s son to the stand as its first witness, who described the relationship between his father and Melgen as “like brothers” and “true friends.”
The defense team hopes to show the jury the genuine friendship between the two men in order to avoid any accusation from the prosecution that they had a corrupt arrangement or conspiracy to commit bribery.
“They are the best when they are together,” Robert Menendez Jr. told jurors, depicting his father as a “serious guy” who found himself able to “unwind” around Melgen, unlike anyone else.
“When he’s with Melgen, he can be himself, he can laugh, he can – unfortunately – sing,” Menendez added about his father, prompting smiles from several jurors as he described “happy occasions” at Melgen’s vacation home in the Dominican Republic, including a 1999 trip to the island for a New Years Eve celebration when he was 14 years old.
But prosecutors tried to cast doubt on the son’s credibility when they showed his 2014 grand jury testimony indicating that his time with Melgen in 1999 was, in fact, only a “small part” of a family vacation, after he testified Monday it was a “major element.”
Melgen defense attorney Kirk Ogrosky also showed jurors various pictures of Melgen’s home at the Dominican Republic as the doctor’s wife described how the senator was a “very special person” to her, and highlighted a photograph of Melgen’s daughter’s wedding with Menendez in the background.
Yet when Ogrosky tried to offer that Menendez gave $1,000 to the daughter – one of the largest gifts for the wedding – the judge stepped in.
“That’s chump change,” Walls shot back, refusing to permit the question before the jury departed for the day.