By DAVID PORTER
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Sen. Bob Menendez was the “personal senator” of a wealthy donor who plied him with flights on his private jet and other gifts, a prosecutor told jurors in closing arguments at the pair’s bribery trial Thursday.
Jurors were hearing from both sides Thursday, and were expected to begin deliberations Monday. They have heard more than two months of testimony, though not from either defendant.
An attorney for Salomon Melgen, Menendez’s longtime friend, in his closing argument, called the government’s case “nothing but speculation,” built on emails and assumptions with no direct evidence of bribery.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is charged with accepting gifts from Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, in exchange for using his political influence.
Prosecutors have sought to show that Melgen lavished Menendez with flights on his private jet and luxury vacations so Menendez would help him with issues including a $9 million Medicare reimbursement dispute.
Menendez lied on his Senate disclosure forms by not reporting the gifts, Justice Department prosecutor J.P. Cooney told jurors.
“What was he so determined to hide? That he’d been bought by Dr. Melgen to serve as Dr. Melgen’s personal senator,” he said.
The prosecution’s case focused on three primary areas in which, they say, Menendez helped Melgen in exchange for the bribes: an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute, a contract for port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic and visas for Melgen’s reputed foreign girlfriends.
By the time of a 2010 Paris trip in which Melgen paid for Menendez’s stay at a $1,500-a-night hotel with his credit card points, Menendez had already helped Melgen with the visas and had alerted staffers to Melgen’s Medicare problem, Cooney told jurors. Emails between Menendez and his staffers mentioned Melgen specifically, disproving he defense’s theory that Menendez was advocating for broader Medicare policy changes, he said.
Melgen gave $300,000 in June 2012 to a Democratic political action committee earmarked for New Jersey, weeks before Menendez set up a meeting with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, then gave $300,000 more in October, Cooney said. He displayed an electronic copy of the June check, which was handwritten.
“Who pulls out their checkbook and hand-writes a $300,000 check?” he asked. “How about someone trying to send a massage?”
“Robert Menendez held himself out as putting New Jersey first, but Dr. Melgen came calling with a better offer,” he concluded.
Representing Melgen, attorney Kirk Ogrosky countered that the prosecution offered a “carefully edited” timeline of emails and correspondences, seeking to connect events that actually weren’t related. He focused on the close friendship between the two men, illustrated by the fact Menendez made numerous trips to visit Melgen in Florida and the Dominican Republic at his own expense.
“If there’s anything that’s not in dispute in this case, it is that these two are friends,” he said.
Defense attorneys contend Menendez and Melgen were longtime friends who weren’t involved in bribery and that Menendez was focused on policy issues when he met with executive branch officials.
Menendez, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993 before filling the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Democrat Jon Corzine became New Jersey governor in 2006, also is charged with making false statements for not disclosing the gifts on Senate ethics forms.
If Menendez is convicted and steps down or is voted out by a two-thirds majority, outgoing Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie could appoint a replacement, which could alter the makeup of the Senate.
Defense attorneys say the gifts were an outgrowth of the two men’s friendship, and that Menendez regularly paid his own way to visit Melgen in the Dominican Republic dating to the 1990s.
They attacked the government for allegedly using a “mix and match” strategy to tie flights Menendez took on Melgen’s private jet with meetings or conversations he had with government officials weeks or months later, in some cases. Menendez’s meetings with government officials were about policy issues and not Melgen’s specific disputes, they contend.
The trial is the first major federal bribery trial since a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and narrowed the definition of official bribery.