NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Senator Robert Menendez will not face a retrial on federal corruption charges, prosecutors said Wednesday, dismissing the Democrat’s indictment on the heels of a ruling that cut his case in half.
Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Menendez with the firm of Norton Rose Fulbright, applauded the move, which followed a 15-minute conference this morning before U.S. District Judge William Walls.
“Despite the five years of this ordeal, Senator Menendez never wavered in his innocence and his commitment to the people of New Jersey,” Lowell said in a statement. “We were fortunate to be able to assist this honorable man.”
Menendez had faced a retrial after the first effort by prosecutors, which slogged on for nine weeks this fall, ended in a hung jury.
Though prosecutors initially asked for the “earliest possible date” to retry Menendez, Judge Walls threw a wrench in that plan with a ruling on Dec. 24 that dismissed six of the bribery charges against Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist.
Walls wrote in the 53-page opinion that prosecutors had failed to meet their legal standard to prove quid pro quo related to the charges.
He also nixed was a fraud charge from the 18-count indictment involving a $300,000 donation that Melgen had made to the Senate Majority political action committee that was earmarked for New Jersey.
Prosecutors accused Menendez of trading political favors from 2006 through early 2013 after Melgen plied him with rides on his private jet, rooms at luxury hotels, a stay at Melgen’s posh villa in the Dominican Republic, and nearly $750,000 in campaign contributions.
In exchange for these frills, Menendez allegedly helped Melgen obtain visas for the doctor’s girlfriends and help Melgen with a major Medicare billing dispute.
Though Melgen was convicted last year of a nearly $9 million Medicare fraud, prosecutors said Menendez had tried to make the case go away by reaching out to top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, including the agency’s secretary at the time, Kathleen Sebelius.
Sebelius testified last year during the trial that it was unusual for her to be involved in a billing dispute, and another staffer testified that Menendez had become angry during the meeting when the matter was not resolved.
Walls noted that Menendez may have been frustrated, not over Melgen’s specific case, but that concerns he had voiced in 2009 over the multidosing policy at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid went unheeded.
Attorneys for Menendez argued that interbranch lobbying — a senator talking with an appointed department head — could not form the basis of an official act for the purposes of proving quid pro quo.
In the ruling, Walls found that the timing of Melgren’s donations to Menendez in and of itself did not prove bribery. “A close temporal relationship between political contributions and favorable official action, without more, is not sufficient to prove the existence of an explicit quid pro quo,” Walls wrote.
Regarding the $300,000 donation, Walls found nothing to connect the donation to any specific official act, even though Melgen sent the senator information regarding the Medicare billing appeal around the same time.
Walls also noted that the 2012 meeting with Sebelius ended Menendez’s advocacy on behalf of Melgen.
Menendez is up for re-election for his third term in the fall and reportedly has support from state and national Democratic leaders.
Local attorney Michael Starr Hopkins recently announced, however, that he would seek the Democratic nomination against Menendez, noting that the Democratic Party should not “excuse corruption within our own party.”
Allegations of racism — both Menendez and Melgen are Hispanic-American — tinged the last trial.