Menendez defense rests case in bribery and fraud trial
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The defense in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez rested its case Monday, shortly after the judge turned down a bid to have a mistrial declared over his rulings during the trial.
Neither the Democratic senator from New Jersey nor co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, testified during the trial, which in its ninth week. Closing arguments are expected later this week after the judge and attorneys settle on instructions for the jury.
An indictment charges Menendez and Melgen with a long-running bribery scheme in which Menendez allegedly traded political influence for gifts including flights on Melgen’s private jet between the U.S. and Melgen’s home at a Dominican Republic resort.
Both men have claimed the gifts were an expression of their longtime friendship, and that there was no bribery arrangement.
The most serious charge they face, honest services fraud, carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Among witnesses the defense team called were two U.S. senators — Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has known Menendez for more than two decades, and Democrat Cory Booker, who represents New Jersey alongside Menendez.
Both testified last week that they knew Menendez to be honest and trustworthy.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge William Walls began by chastising defense attorneys for a mistrial request he said was devoid of “even palpable merit.”
Attorneys had accused Walls during a weekend filing of tying their hands by limiting what evidence and witnesses they could present to the jury.
The filing alleged Walls’ rulings deprived the defendants “of their Fifth and Sixth Amendments rights to a fair trial, to an adequate defense, and to confront the witnesses against them.”
In strongly worded remarks Monday, Walls chided the defense for “failing to acknowledge that they are bound by the rules of evidence.
“There’s not even palpable merit to what you wish,” he added.
Central to an indictment that charges the men with bribery, fraud and conspiracy is that in return for the gifts, Menendez pressured executive branch officials to help the ophthalmologist with his $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and with a stalled port screening contract in the Dominican Republic.
Defense attorneys alleged they weren’t allowed to introduce evidence that would show Menendez’s intent in meeting with those officials was to discuss broad policy issues and not Melgen’s specific concerns.
Walls frequently has justified his rulings by saying the defense’s evidence is either irrelevant or repetitive and that Melgen’s disputes aren’t an issue for the jury to decide — only whether a bribery arrangement existed.
On Monday, the judge didn’t budge.
The defense “wants to spend morning, noon and night” discussing details of the port contract and the Medicare dispute,” he said. “It’s a question for this court to determine when enough is enough.”
Walls already has denied previous requests to have the case thrown out, most recently two weeks ago when defense attorneys alleged prosecutors hadn’t proved evidence of bribery under a narrowed definition of the crime stemming from a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.
That decision, which overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, will weigh heavily over the instructions Walls give to jurors this week.
The McDonnell decision has led courts to overturn the convictions of at least three other public officials in recent months, including former Democratic U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, primarily based on the content of the jury instructions.