Judge refuses to throw out case against New Jersey senator
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — In a big defeat for Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the judge at his corruption trial Monday refused to throw out any of the charges against him in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowing the definition of bribery.
The decision by U.S. District Judge William Walls was a major victory for federal prosecutors, who had warned that dismissing the charges would torpedo nearly all other bribery cases and open the door wide to graft.
Walls rejected defense lawyers’ arguments that the allegations against Menendez didn’t meet the new definition of bribery contained in the 2016 Supreme Court ruling that reversed the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. In recent months, the McDonnell ruling led judges to throw out the bribery convictions of at least three other public officials, including a former Louisiana congressman.
Just days ago, Walls appeared to be leaning toward a ruling that could have gutted the case against Menendez and co-defendant Dr. Salomon Melgen. Virtually the entire 18-count indictment against them focuses on bribery.
The senator had no comment after the ruling.
Menendez, 63, is charged with accepting free flights on a private jet, luxury hotel stays and other gifts from the wealthy Florida eye doctor over a seven-year period. In exchange, prosecutors say, he pressured government officials on Melgen’s behalf over an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a contract to provide port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic.
The most serious charge Menendez and Melgen face, honest services fraud, is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Prosecutors rested their case last week. After Walls’ ruling, the defense began presenting its side, with family members of both defendants taking the stand.
Menendez’s son, Robert Jr., and Melgen’s wife, Flor, testified about the close relationship between the two men. Defense attorneys are seeking to emphasize that Melgen’s gifts were an outgrowth of that friendship and not part of a bribery scheme.
Last week, Walls appeared to cast doubt on the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory of bribery, which holds that each bribe in a series of them over time doesn’t necessarily have to be made with the intent of prompting a specific official action.
Defense attorneys had argued that the McDonnell ruling said instead that a bribe must be given in exchange for a public official taking action, or agreeing to take action, on a specific matter.
The defense accused the prosecution of using a “mix-and-match” strategy to pair up Melgen’s gifts between 2006 and 2013 with actions Menendez took during the same period, without establishing direct connections.
On Monday, Walls instead cited a federal appeals court ruling, issued after McDonnell, that upheld the stream of benefits theory in cases where gifts flow to a public official “in exchange for a pattern of official action ... on an as-needed basis.”
In court papers, prosecutors had warned that invalidating the theory would “jettison the vast majority of bribery prosecutions and broadly legalize pay-to-play politics.”
This story has been corrected to show that the congressman whose case was thrown out was from Louisiana, not Pennsylvania.
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