- Judge puts off October trial as defense lawyer plans appeal
- Menendez awaits ruling on request to throw out prosecution
A federal judge postponed the scheduled Oct. 13 trial of Senator Robert Menendez on bribery charges after defense lawyers said they may appeal his anticipated ruling on a key legal dispute to the U.S. Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge William Walls agreed to the delay after day-long arguments by the defense seeking to toss or limit the April 1 indictment of the New Jersey Democrat. Menendez is charged with taking illegal gifts from a campaign donor seeking his help.
Walls said he’ll decide by next week whether to dismiss the case. If it survives that ruling, he would likely set a trial for the fall of 2016, he said. Menendez’s lawyers claim prosecutors violated the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, which protects lawmakers from prosecution for legislative acts.
Abbe Lowell, Menendez’s lawyer, said he will take the case to an appeals court in Philadelphia, and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, if he loses.
Menendez was indicted on charges of illegally taking almost $1 million in campaign donations, luxury travel and other gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor. Melgen, who also was indicted, has joined Menendez’s request to dismiss the case. Both men argue that prosecutors inflamed the grand jury by improperly presenting salacious evidence about their sex lives.
Lowell said no evidence exists of an illegal agreement between the senator and the doctor, who had been friends for 20 years. The judge said that doesn’t rule out the possibility of bribery.
“Friends can be corrupt,” Walls said. “Friends have gone to jail because they were corrupt,” he said, pointing to the history of such cases in New Jersey.
Walls also asked Justice Department trial attorney Peter Koski why it was important to ask witnesses about their sexual relationships to determine if Menendez acted illegally in aiding the visa applications of Melgen’s girlfriends.
“What difference does it make?” Walls asked. “Why all this New York Post-type coverage?”
Koski said the nature of the relationship “goes to motive and consciousness of guilt.”
The prosecutor also revealed that one of Menendez’s girlfriends filed a lawsuit under seal to quash her testimony about whether they had a sexual relationship. Koski said: “We had a green light from a district judge in this courthouse.”
Walls said any appeal of his ruling next week to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia would probably take months to litigate.
“In the absence of an expedited hearing by the Circuit, we are looking at the fall of 2016,” Walls said.
He said he will hold a status conference on Jan. 12, when he will set a trial date.
The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-00155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).