Menendez, Melgen ask judge to declare a mistrial in bribery case
Request came after attempt to call attorney retained for a Senate probe into Menendez from 2012
Sens. Lindsey Graham and Cory Booker appeared as character witnesses Thursday
The legal teams for Sen. Bob Menendez and his co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen moved for a mistrial in their defendants’ federal bribery case Thursday afternoon, but the judge appeared poised to reject it.
In a fiery exchange – at times rising to shouting – with defense lawyers running over an hour, Judge William Walls pressed the lawyers to explain the basis for their assertion that he’s committed judicial misconduct.
“We’re still buddies – but don’t try to soften the blow, if you are going to accuse the court of misconduct then I’m going to hold your feet to the fire,” Walls told Melgen’s defense attorney, Kirk Ogrosky. “This is what we call a ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting.”
“I’m not asking you to abandon rules, I’m asking you to apply them equally,” Ogrosky said at one point.
Earlier Thursday, the defense team attempted to call Perkins Coie attorney Marc Elias – who was retained for a Senate ethics inquiry into Menendez that began in 2012 – and now at the center of a different political firestorm over his engagement of an intelligence firm for Hillary Clinton’s campaign to conduct opposition research on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Lawyers wanted to put Elias up to help explain issues surrounding Menendez’s Senate disclosure forms, which prosecutors say failed to include years’ worth of free plane rides the senator took on Melgen’s private jet. Menendez and Melgen deny all charges in the bribery case.
But the prosecution objected to the testimony as inadmissible hearsay and irrelevant, and Walls ultimately agreed Elias should be precluded from taking the stand.
Ogrosky and Menendez defense attorney Abbe Lowell provided the judge with a litany of other examples the defense team says prove they have been precluded from introducing certain documents, eliciting testimony and cross examining witnesses – key evidence they need in order to cast doubt that Menendez and Melgen had the “motive and intent” to commit bribery.
They also told the judge that the timing of one of his instructions to the jury was prejudicial to their case. Walls told the jury on Wednesday it’s their job to evaluate the credibility of a witnesses – with longtime Menendez fundraiser Donald Scarinci on the stand – a reminder that the jury could have interpreted as hinting that he wasn’t telling the truth.
“What you say matters,” added Lowell, “You have enormous weight.”
The judge appeared unpersuaded.
“The trial will continue,” Walls said. “At this point I’m not really impressed by your argument that what I’ve done and not done is grounds for a mistrial.”
“All of you are out of your legal pampers – I’m not bailing you out unless it’s a case of rank injustice,” Walls added.
“I am deeply disappointed that my lawyers had to, that it came to point that my lawyers had to, make the motion they made today,” Menendez told reporters outside the courthouse. “I think that what they said in court stands for how I feel, their words stand for where we view things at this moment, but we will carry on.”
Senators appear as character witnesses
On Thursday morning, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker testified as character witnesses for Menendez.
Booker said Menendez is trustworthy and honest, speaking directly to the jury about his fellow New Jersey Democrat.
“I’m the only US senator in our country that when I come home, I come home here to Newark – I live a couple miles from here,” Booker said, captivating the jury for roughly 10 minutes on the witness stand.
“I don’t care who you are in America – Italian, Irish, Korean, Black or Latina – you are not that far away from struggle, poverty, and hurt. Some of us forget where we come from. But what I think is honorable about Bob is … Bob has not forgotten where he comes from. He is someone who has known poverty and insecurity and what is honorable about him to me is that when I go home, and I am reminded of who I’m fighting for, I know Bob Menendez doesn’t just have my back but has their backs,” Booker testified.
Graham described Menendez as an honest broker in the Senate, working across political lines even though the two rarely agree.
“He’s someone you can go to as a Republican to see if you can find bipartisanship,” Graham said, explaining to jurors that the pair had worked on comprehensive immigration reform and the Iranian nuclear agreement together in the past. “In very difficult circumstances he always keeps his word – a handshake is all you need from Bob.”
The trial will resume Monday morning.