Twelve jurors began their deliberations Monday in the federal corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy ophthalmologist – the outcome of which could determine the political future of the New Jersey Democrat.
“I am convinced that I will be declared not guilty, innocent of all charges,” Menendez told reporters heading into court Monday morning.
The Justice Department’s 18-count public corruption indictment accuses the senator of accepting over $600,000 in political contributions, free rides on a private jet, and a swanky hotel suite in Paris from Dr. Salomon Melgen.
In exchange, prosecutors say Menendez abused the power of his office by pressuring federal officials in the Obama administration and other career diplomats to help Melgen resolve a number of business disputes.
Jurors continued to hear closing arguments for several hours Monday before retiring to their room to determine the pair’s fate.
’Be mad now’
Addressing the jury in Menendez’s defense, attorney Abbe Lowell told jurors that prosecutors had tried to lead them astray with distractions about beach vacations Melgen provided, but never showed any corrupt agreement.
“Be mad now,” Lowell said. “You heard a parade of witnesses from prosecutors that told you about no more than fluffy robes, juice and potato chips. … Expect and demand more from the government when they have the burden to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lowell urged jurors to focus instead on the “true, honest and lawful” 25-year friendship between Menendez and Melgen, highlighting the $1,000 wedding gift the senator gave to Melgen’s daughter.
“People who are taking bribes don’t give these kinds of gifts in return,” Lowell said. “Criminals in bribe schemes do not introduce their families (or) stay in the same hotel rooms.”
In rebuttal remarks, federal prosecutor Peter Koski told jurors that the defense lawyers’ friendship defense was a “misdirection.”
“Defendants want you to believe that friendship and bribery cannot co-exist – that is not the law,” Koski said. “The issue in this case is not whether Sen. Menendez and Melgen were friends – the issue is whether they committed a crime together.”
Koski also suggested that the defense lawyers had engaged in “sleight of hand” by suggesting Menendez was more focused on the underlying policy issues raised by Melgen’s business problems and that testimony from the senator’s character witnesses was unpersuasive.
“These weren’t character witnesses – they were political witnesses,” Koski said, referring to testimony from GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker. “These witnesses saw none of the evidence that you’ve seen – do not let the defendants get away with politicizing this case.”
’Stream of benefits’
Over the course of eight weeks, the seven-woman, five-man jury heard from 57 witnesses – including FBI special agents, pilots, ambassadors and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as well as a slew of character witnesses in support of Menendez.
Both Menendez and Melgen opted not to testify in their own defense – a choice the judge explicitly instructed the jury to ignore as the defendants’ constitutional right.
Last week, Judge William Walls read over two hours of instructions on the charges to the jury – a product of lengthy negotiations in light of a 2016 Supreme Court decision unanimously overturning former Gov. Robert McDonnell’s conviction and clarifying federal bribery law.
“I’m one of the experimental lambs,” Walls said to the attorneys as they haggled over the new bribery requirements, “I think I’m the first trial court to deal with this.”
Walls ultimately adopted the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory for the private flights and other gifts – where many gifts are exchanged for a variety of political favors over a period of several years – instead of requiring prosecutors to prove a more direct link between a specific gift followed by a specific political favor.
For the $660,000 in political donations Melgen is accused of making to benefit Menendez in 2012, however, Walls told the jurors they needed to find an “explicit agreement.”
“You have to find that the defendants agreed to exchange the contribution for a specified future official action,” Walls said. “It is not bribery if you find that the contribution was given and received in exchange for some future unspecified official action.”