Mendendez Trial May Hinge on a New Definition of Bribery


The defense is scheduled to begin its case on Monday, but first Judge William H. Walls is expected to rule on a motion to dismiss the case, a motion that he hinted he was considering during arguments in court about the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell.

In fact, the McDonnell decision has loomed over prosecutors throughout the Menendez trial, and Judge Walls suggested that he was leaning toward interpreting the ruling as invalidating a theory of bribery, known as “stream of benefits,” that is central to the government’s case.

The Supreme Court’s decision also set a high bar for what constitutes the kind of act an elected official must perform to have the exchange qualify as bribery — setting up meetings for constituents or making a phone call on behalf of a constituent no longer qualifies.

But in a narrative spun out in tedious, often repetitive, fashion over six weeks of testimony in the federal courthouse in Newark, prosecutors laid out the many ways that Mr. Menendez helped Dr. Melgen whenever he ran into trouble.

The two men started out as acquaintances in the early 1990s, but their relationship grew into one of hourslong phone conversations fueled by a multitude of bribes, according to prosecutors.

When Dr. Melgen needed to expedite visas for young women with whom he had a relationship or to have the denial of a visa reversed, he reached out to Mr. Menendez, who sent letters and had his staff make inquiries.

“He told me that he was going to try to fix it, that he was going to talk to the senator,” Rosiell Polanco, one of the women, told the jury last month.

Soon after, her visa was granted.

When Dr. Melgen was locked in a contract dispute with the government of the Dominican Republic over cargo screening equipment, his lawyers warned officials at the Commerce Department that Dr. Melgen “had politically influential friends,” according to the testimony of Scott Smith, an official at the department, and that he could “be a bull in the Commerce Department’s china shop.

Photo

Dr. Melgen held hands with his wife outside a federal courthouse in Florida, where he was convicted of Medicare fraud in an unrelated case. He and Mr. Menendez, who have been longtime friends, are accused in New Jersey of political corruption.

Credit
Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post, via Associated Press

Dr. Menendez contacted Ambassador William Brownfield, who at the time was an assistant secretary of state overseeing the department’s counterdrug programs, expressing concern over drug trafficking and port security before alluding to Dr. Melgen’s contract dispute. Then, according to testimony from Mark Alan Wells, a former State Department official, Mr. Menendez threatened Mr. Brownfield that he could convene a congressional hearing.

Mr. Menendez’s office also reached out to the Customs and Border Protection, asking officials to “please consider holding off on the delivery of any such equipment until you can discuss this matter with us,” according to Stephanie Talton, a former congressional liaison for Customs and Border Protection.

This time, Dr. Melgen’s contract dispute went unresolved.

And when Dr. Melgen was accused of overbilling Medicare for $8.9 million, he reached out to Mr. Menendez, who asked his chief of staff to see who had the most “juice” at the Department of Health and Human Services. Eventually, Mr. Menendez went through one of his close friends in the Senate, Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, to convene a meeting.

“It was unusual for Senator Reid to ask me to come to a meeting involving another member of Congress,” Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services at the time, testified. “I think this was the only time in five and a half years that that occurred.”

In return for his assistance, Mr. Menendez was rewarded with free flights on Dr. Melgen’s private jet (Dr. Melgen’s personal pilot recalled flying the senator 16 times), a luxurious weekend stay in Paris (paid for by 650,000 of Dr. Melgen’s American Express Rewards points), rounds of golf, dinners and more than $700,000 in contributions to various political committees likely to be supportive of Mr. Menendez.

“This is what bribery looks like,” Peter Koski, the lead prosecutor in the case, said in his opening statement. “Friends can commit crimes together. Friends can bribe each other.”

At one point, another prosecutor, Amanda Vaughn, attempted to tie the alleged scheme together on a whiteboard in front of the jury. She carefully wrote the date of each action and the date of each gift.

The whiteboard was likely a helpful aid; the methodical parsing of every detail – hotel receipts, credit card statements and passports, among other things – mixed with constant interruptions over legal points left many jurors inattentive, with some even nodding off, as the trial has dragged on at a sluggish pace.

For its part, the defense does not dispute many of the facts laid out by the prosecution. Dr. Melgen was generous and bestowed many gifts on Mr. Menendez. But the reason was simple. They were friends and that is what friends do.

The defense also disputed the motivation for Mr. Menendez’s actions. In each instance, they say, Mr. Menendez was prompted by an issue’s broader policy implications, consistent with his 20-year record in Congress as a representative and senator, and not because he wanted to do anything solely for Dr. Melgen’s benefit.

Still, since the indictment was handed down more than two years ago and since Dr. Melgen was convicted in Florida in a separate case on charges of defrauding Medicare, the two once-close friends haven’t had many opportunities to socialize

During court, they sit at either ends of an L-shaped defendants’ table, usually separated by several lawyers. They rarely converse in court. They rarely even look at each other.

But that is not always the case. When Mr. Smith was on the witness stand describing the threats made by Dr. Melgen’s lawyer, he made a passing reference to Dr. Melgen’s “political weight.”

The doctor picked his head up, smiling slightly. He looked over at the senator, who was looking right back at him.

The two men chuckled.

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