Was Robert Menendez the “personal senator” of Salomon Melgen, as prosecutors argued today? Or did the doctor and the Democrat only share friendship, and the prosecution simply engage in “speculation” to conclude bribery had taken place? The corruption trial of Menendez and Melgen came to an end today with closing arguments from both sides, leaving the jury plenty to discuss but perhaps no clear path to a conclusion.
The prosecution argued that “this is what bribery looks like” in urging the jury for a conviction:
“Senator Menendez held himself out as putting New Jersey first. Dr. Melgen came calling with a better offer,” federal prosecutor J.P. Cooney told jurors.
“Robert Menendez may have been elected to represent New Jersey, but Robert Menendez chose instead to represent the wealthy doctor from Florida — he was Salomon Melgen’s personal US senator,” Cooney added.
“This is what bribery looks like,” he said.
The problem for the prosecution is the lack of a “smoking gun” that directly connects a payment or benefit from Melgen to a specific official action by Menendez. It’s a circumstantial case, which prosecutors hope to win by demonstrating a profusion of both unusual benefits and unusual actions, plus a mens rea of culpability. To this end, prosecutors pointed out the efforts Menendez took to hide the benefits as a sign of guilt:
The evidence shows Menendez corruptly took gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who lavished him with trips on his private jet, a vacation in Paris and about $750,000 in campaign contributions, Justice Department attorney J.P. Cooney said Thursday.
In exchange, Cooney said, the lawmaker intervened on behalf of the doctor seeking to resolve an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a contract standoff in the Dominican Republic. He also helped him secure visas for four women. Menendez then covered up his actions and lied to the media and on ethics forms, he said, in a bribery plot that prosecutors say began in 2006.
Prosecutors wrapped up their case by exhorting jurors to employ “common sense” in their deliberations. The defense argued that they should stick to the facts and not connect dots where no connection exists:
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. …
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 jury won’t actually get the case until Monday, as the court will not be in session tomorrow. This may take a long time for the jury to hash out. The deliberations will likely hinge on whether jurors buy the “stream of benefits” theory of bribery and corruption that the defense unsuccessfully attempted to challenge earlier in the case. If they do, Menendez’ lack of disclosure will likely be the telling blow, but don’t bet too high on a conviction. This is a big ask by the prosecution, and the jury may simply opt that they didn’t have enough to prove corruption beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, if they do convict, it will almost certainly be within the next week or so. That’s more than enough time for Chris Christie to appoint an interim senator when Menendez resigns. Well, if he resigns. Menendez isn’t required to resign; he could argue that he deserves to keep his seat while he appeals, and Democrats might not be inclined push Menendez out early. Mitch McConnell will need 16 Democrats to go along in the first successful expulsion from the Senate since the Civil War, and there may not be enough incumbents coming up for election in 2018 to be embarrassed enough to keep Menendez in his seat until a Democrat takes over the governor’s seat in early January.