Former Menendez staffers push counter-narrative at trial
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s former employees on Thursday continued to push back against the narrative presented by prosecutors that the Democrat pressured executive branch officials on behalf of his wealthy co-defendant.
In response, the prosecution produced emails and notes in an attempt to chip away at the testimony.
Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen are charged in an alleged bribery scheme in which Melgen offered Menendez free flights on his private jet and other gifts in exchange for help with business issues.
Those issues included Melgen’s $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a stalled contract for port cargo screening equipment in the Dominican Republic.
Central to the two men’s defense is the idea that when Menendez met or spoke with executive branch officials between 2009 and 2012, his focus was not on Melgen specifically but on wider issues.
On Thursday, former Menendez legislative aide Michael Barnard testified the meetings with then-acting Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2012 were about underlying policy issues, specifically on what Menendez felt were inconsistent reimbursement guidelines that only enriched drug companies.
Tavenner “agreed with us that there was a lot of confusion in the policy” and there was conversation at the meeting about a potential solution, Barnard said to Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell.
Similarly, Menendez and then-Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid discussed the same issue with Sebelius, Barnard testified. Menendez didn’t mention Melgen’s name at the meetings, Barnard said.
On cross-examination, Justice Department attorney J.P. Cooney showed the jury that Melgen’s attorney, Alan Reider, participated in prep sessions before both meetings and that Barnard had Reider review a pre-meeting memo before it was given to Menendez.
Cooney also showed jurors Barnard’s handwritten notes from a conversation with Reider in which Barnard characterized Reider’s “ask,” or request, to be to close the case. The note also contained the phrase, “Perfect world: drop charges.”
Earlier Thursday, another former Menendez staffer who attended a 2012 meeting Menendez had with a State Department official contradicted earlier prosecution testimony that Menendez threatened to call a Senate hearing over the port security contract dispute.
A company Melgen took over had a long-running dispute with the Dominican government over the contract. The indictment alleges Menendez interceded to pressure State Department officials about the contract and also tried to stop U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials from donating cargo screening equipment to the port, a move that could have negatively affected Melgen’s company.
Menendez has said in court filings that he had legitimate concerns about port security in the Dominican Republic due to the country’s illicit drug trade.
The trial is in its seventh week. The defense is expected to rest its case within the next week or two.