Menendez judge: Say, corruption suspects sure are getting off easy these days

You don’t say. Politico’s Josh Gerstein picked up on this unhappy harbinger by the judge overseeing Senator Robert Menendez’ (D-NJ) case on corruption from the New Jersey Record, although Judge William Walls made the comments in an unrelated case. Prosecutors recommended probation for a defendant in a HUD-fraud scheme who had provided cooperation to investigators. Walls told prosecutors that he’s tired of letting fraudsters and corrupt officials walk out of court, and he’s not going to do it again … after this:

Before sentencing a Guttenberg contractor who conspired with Union City officials to steal federal housing funds, U.S. District Judge William H. Walls spent several minutes upbraiding the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a “ridiculous” pattern of bringing corruption cases and then seeking lenient sentences for defendants who plead guilty.

“That is so ridiculous it makes no sense in the context of true law enforcement,” Walls said from the bench. “This is sheer legal nonsense.”

“If you swindle the government, regardless of your status, you should go to jail,” he added.

Prosecutors defended the practice, and noted that the judge himself is the final arbiter:

“It is firmly rooted in our system of justice that a defendant who admits his own guilt and cooperates in the government’s investigation or prosecution of criminal conduct is entitled to some consideration at the time of sentencing,” said Fishman spokes­man Matthew Reilly. “It is the prosecution’s responsibility to bring that information to the attention of the court, and the court has the discretion to determine how much weight to give it.”

True enough, and a point that should be well taken by Walls. However, the context of the remarks appears to relate to the relative zeal of prosecutors in bringing corruption cases and the contrast to the desire to jail the offenders.

At any rate, it certainly appears that Walls will take that point in consideration in the future. That’s not good news for Menendez, assuming a jury convicts him and his crony Salomon Melgen on a number of corruption counts facing them. As Gerstein notes, Walls has already made several rulings that paint a bleak picture for the pair:

Walls, a senior judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, is overseeing the case in which Menendez is accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and campaign contributions as bribes to do official favors for a Florida ophthalmologist also charged in the case, Dr. Salomon Melgen.

Both men have entered not guilty pleas, but Walls has rejected most of the defense motions challenging the charges. Menendez’s appeal seeking to toss out the case on grounds it invaded Menendez’s Constitutional privileges as a lawmaker was rejected last month by a federal appeals court panel. Menendez’s lawyers have asked the full bench of the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit to take up the issue.

Walls’ call for tougher sentences for some defendants seems likely not to be welcome news for defendants in Menendez and Melgen’s position. An attorney for Menendez did not respond to a request for comment on Walls’ remarks.

They probably don’t want to anger Walls ahead of the trial. One has to wonder, though, whether this will prompt the defense teams from moving for a new judge. Walls’ statement isn’t a declaration of bias in terms of legal findings in this specific case, but … well, it certainly looks as though it’d be worth a try to find a judge less inclined to throw the book at the next corruptocrats he finds.

It’s difficult to fault Walls for this tongue-lashing, though. It certainly is frustrating to see corrupt officials get away with their actions, and even prosper by them. Maybe the Department of Justice should look into that.