Justice Department details case against New Jersey senator
Email correspondence, flight manifests, hotel bills, credit card statements and Federal Election Commission filings will all be deployed as evidence of an alleged bribery scheme carried out for seven years by Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and an associate, according to a new brief filed by prosecutors in federal court Wednesday.
But the defense team called foul on prosecutors’ court filing late Wednesday, saying it could taint the jury pool.
The outline of the Justice Department’s case came one week before the trial against Menendez and his co-defendant, Florida-based ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, begins on September 6 in federal court in Newark, New Jersey. Menendez and Melgen have been charged with 18 counts of fraud and bribery crimes. Both have entered a plea of not guilty.
Menendez and Melgen are accused of having a “quid pro quo” relationship going as far back as 2006. Prosecutors say that in exchange for luxurious vacations and large donations to his campaign coffers, Menendez used his power to advocate for various personal and business interests of Melgen’s within the government.
Jurors will also hear from many different witnesses, including Menendez staffers, State Department officials and even pilots who flew the private jet Menendez allegedly flew on as a part of his lavish, Melgen-sponsored vacations. Prosecutors further signaled that they plan to introduce charts to summarize documents for the jury, writing that this will be the most efficient way to communicate the 20,000 pages of admissible evidence to the jury.
In Wednesday’s trial brief, prosecutors also urged the court to ignore what they view as attempts by Menendez and Melgen’s defense team to skew the facts of the case or to try to paint Menendez’s acts in a positive light. Menendez allies have previously alleged that the senator’s indictment was politically motivated.
“This case is about serious questions of fact and law related to the corruption of one of the highest elected offices in the United States government,” the brief reads. “It is not about anonymous tips, Cuba, Iran, party politics or the political consequences of a conviction. The question of whether the defendants engaged in a corrupt scheme cannot be answered by the defendants’ conspiracy theories. Rather, it only can be answered through a focused examination of the defendants’ and their agents’ own contemporaneous statements, black-and-white financial, government and business records, and live, non-anonymous witness testimony.”
Yet the defense team says DOJ’s detailed court filing “exacerbated” the challenge of finding a juror that has not read media accounts of the case (one was dismissed for financial hardship last week and will be replaced).
“The first 16 pages of this ‘brief’ seemed designed solely to generate adverse pretrial publicity for the defendants, giving the media a rhetorically florid preview of prosecutors’ opening argument,” said Raymond Brown, one of Menendez’s lawyers, in a letter to the judge Wednesday.
Last week, Menendez’s attorneys also filed a motion asking the court to alert the trial schedule to allow the senator to participate in critical votes, including the future of the Affordable Care Act.
“Both Sen. Menendez and the citizens who elected him, have an unquestionable interest in the senator’s continued performance of the core legislative functions that the Constitution assigns to him alone,” lawyers for Menendez wrote in the court filing. “(A) trial schedule without some non-prejudicial accommodation of this dilemma directly interferes with the independent operation of the legislative branch by putting Sen. Menendez in the position of choosing between his individual rights to due process and confrontation on the one hand, and from discharging his core legislative duties on the other hand.”
US District Court Judge William H. Walls has yet to rule on the request, but signaled in court last week he was unwilling to entertain it.
“If the senator wishes to absent himself at times for purposes of vote, that is his prerogative and I have no problem with that,” Walls said. “The point is the senator is no worse and no better than any other defendant. Any defendant has a right to be present and any defendant has a right not to be present.”
‘A corrupt pact spanning seven years’
After Menendez was elected to the US Senate in 2006, prosecutors say in the brief that Melgen began “a pattern of treating Menendez to weekend and week-long getaways in the Dominican Republic that would continue for the next several years.”
Melgen allegedly flew Menendez on his own private jet or on “equally luxurious travel” to his villa at Case de Campo, a luxurious resort in the Dominican Republic featuring amenities from beaches to polo fields. At one point, Melgen allegedly purchased a three-night hotel stay for Menendez at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Paris. Prosecutors say that Menendez never acknowledged these gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms.
Melgen also donated heavily to Menendez’s campaign and legal defense funds. At one point, Melgen donated more than $770,000 to various funds supporting Menendez over a five-month period.
In return, prosecutors say, Menendez acted in his “official capacity” to help Melgen — a key hook for legal liability. After a Dominican company, purchased by Melgen, that had the exclusive right to install and operate x-ray imaging equipment in the Dominican Republic ran into a dispute with the government, Menendez allegedly “exerted substantial pressure on the State Department to intervene with the Dominican government to resolve the dispute in Melgen’s favor,” according to the brief.
Menendez also allegedly acted on Melgen’s behalf in a dispute between Melgen’s ophthalmology practice and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. When the CMS formally demanded the Melgen pay back $8.9 million in Medicare overbillings, Melgen allegedly asked Menendez to “weigh in with CMS,” according to the brief.
In 2009, Menendez allegedly called the director of the Center of Medicare and “pressed the agency to approve Melgen’s bills,” according to the brief. Prosecutors say the same day as that call Melgen agreed to donate $60,000 to organizations supporting Menendez.
Beyond business matters, Menendez also allegedly got involved at different points in the visa cases of three international women, all allegedly girlfriends of Melgen’s. The women, from Ukraine, Brazil and the Dominican Republic, were all attempting to visit Melgen in the United States.
Menendez allegedly lobbied ambassadors and other officials in support of their visa applications, even intervening after one of Melgen’s girlfriends and her sister, both from the Dominican Republic, had their visas denied.