Menendez staffer grilled over ethics forms at bribery trial
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — As the bribery and fraud trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez inched toward a conclusion Wednesday, jurors heard briefly about a since-discredited news report that prompted the investigation five years ago, and in greater detail about the fallout that ensued.
Much of the day’s testimony revolved around what Menendez did and didn’t report on Senate ethics forms over several years. An indictment alleges the New Jersey Democrat purposely concealed trips on a private jet and other gifts bestowed by Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, his longtime friend, as part of a bribery scheme in which Menendez lobbied for Melgen’s business interests with executive branch officials.
The final count in the 18-count indictment charges Menendez with making false statements. On Wednesday, prosecutors grilled Menendez’s deputy chief of staff who helped prepared the disclosure forms.
Visibly nervous during testimony that lasted most of the afternoon, defense witness Robert Kelly testified on cross-examination that he wasn’t familiar with all of the rules regarding disclosures but that he believed Menendez didn’t have to report gifts from close personal friends.
Going through the disclosure guidelines line by line, Justice Department attorney Monique Abrishami noted that even a section that mentions personal gifts requires that they be reported if they exceed a certain monetary value.
“So there actually is no friendship exception, is there?” she asked.
Abrishami also noted that while Kelly assembled the information for the reports, it was Menendez’s obligation to make sure they were truthful.
Menendez eventually reimbursed Melgen for some of the flights on Melgen’s private plane. He and Melgen contend the trips and other gifts were expressions of their longtime friendship and not part of a bribery agreement.
Kelly’s testimony on Wednesday also touched on a story allegedly connecting Menendez to underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic that prompted the investigation into Menendez’s relationship with Melgen in 2012. A conservative website made the allegation before the 2012 election, and it was later discredited.
Around the same time, a Republican state senator from New Jersey said he had passed on similar information to the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee to request an investigation.
Jurors didn’t hear details of the allegations Wednesday, but Kelly testified the “salacious, false press article” led him to comb through the senator’s travel records, a process that took a full year.
Menendez’s attorneys have contended the non-disclosure of the flights was an oversight at a time when he was overwhelmed by the combination of his re-election campaign, the prostitution allegations, lining up aid for New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy and preparing to assume the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee.
The trial is in its eighth week. Neither Melgen nor Menendez has testified. The defense is expected to rest its case in the next few days, after which the two sides are expected to spar over how U.S. District Judge William Walls is to instruct the jury on the law.
The definition of official bribery was narrowed by a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has been responsible for the recent overturning of several politicians’ corruption convictions.