The staffer in Sen. Bob Menendez’s office in charge of assisting the senator fill out his Senate financial disclosure forms described himself as “vaguely familiar” with the rules that govern the forms.
Robert Kelly, the deputy chief of staff of operations in Menendez’s Washington office, testified as a part of the defense’s case in the New Jersey Democratic senator’s bribery trial Wednesday. The senator is charged with accepting lavish vacations and trips on a private jet in exchange for acting on the behalf of his friend, a wealthy eye doctor from Florida named Salomon Melgen, in various government dealings. Both men deny all charges.
The surprising explanation came as Kelly testified about the way that Menendez prepared his financial disclosure forms. Forms from the years 2006, 2007, and 2010 do not include flights he took on Melgen’s private plane under the “gifts” category, as prosecutors claim Menendez was trying to “conceal” the bribes he received.
When further questioned by Judge William Walls, who himself appeared to be surprised with the answer, Kelly repeated that he had “scanned” the disclosure rules, which are attached to the disclosure form.
“My answer is that I have not read all throughout these instructions here,” an admittedly nervous Kelly told the jury. “I am vaguely familiar with them having scanned them and not word for word.”
“The friendship exemption”
Each year, Kelly testified, he essentially copied the previous year’s disclosure forms, updated them based on documents he obtained from the senator, and showed them to Menendez for final review. That’s because the senator did not have complicated finances that changed greatly throughout the years, Kelly said.
But when questioned by defense attorney Abbe Lowell about gifts that were not included on the forms Kelly helped with, Kelly contended that it was due to “the friendship exemption.”
That comment was seized by prosecutor Monique Abrishami, who, on cross examination, walked Kelly through the instructions attached to the Senate financial disclosure documents, noting that none of the gift exemptions are described as “the friendship exemption.”
“My understanding was that if there was a gift or exchange between senator and close personal friend that those did not have to be disclosed,” Kelly testified in a later question from Lowell.
A note on the disclosure form does indicate that “personal hospitality” can be excluded. But another note says that even gifts that may be exempt from the rules must still be disclosed.
Despite Kelly’s answers, Abrishami emphasized a number of times in her questions that Menendez is, in the end, fully responsible for his own disclosure form according to senate rules.
Kelly’s testimony comes in the eighth week of the trial as the defense approaches the close of the second week of its arguments.
CNN’s Laura Jarrett contributed to this report.