- Prosecutors charged U.S. senator with accepting bribes
- New Jersey Democrat allegedly got gifts from Florida doctor
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez failed in his legal bid to have his bribery case tossed out even as a federal judge threw out four of the 22 counts in the indictment against the New Jersey Democrat and a campaign donor.
U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark, New Jersey, ruled Monday on 10 of 15 dismissal motions filed by Menendez and the donor, Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor. It wasn’t immediately clear when the judge will rule on the rest of the defense requests to throw out the case.
Walls rejected the senator’s bid to dismiss the case based on the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause, which usually protects lawmakers from prosecution for legislative acts. Menendez lawyer Abbe Lowell vowed to appeal Monday’s rulings.
Menendez is accused of taking almost $1 million in campaign donations, luxury travel and other gifts from Melgen.
Walls also denied the senator’s claim that prosecutors knowingly encouraged a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent to lie to the grand jury that returned the April 1 indictment.
Prosecutors disputed all of Menendez’s claims. They said the senator intervened to help the eye doctor in a Medicare overbilling case, a contract dispute with the Dominican Republic and visa applications for three girlfriends.
The senator has called the case an attempt to prosecute a 20-year friendship. Any favors between the two men stemmed from that relationship, not corruption, he said.
Menendez and Melgen are charged with conspiracy, bribery, honest-services fraud and violating the Travel Act. Menendez was also accused of making false statements. The senator had been charged in 14 counts, Melgen in 13.
The judge dismissed two bribery counts against each man that related to separate $20,000 donations that Melgen gave in 2011 and 2012 to a legal defense trust fund that benefited Menendez. Walls said prosecutors failed to meet the legal standard to charge that donation as a crime.
Melgen joined Menendez’s request to dismiss the case. Both men argued that prosecutors inflamed the grand jury by improperly presenting salacious evidence about their sex lives, including unsubstantiated allegations from an anonymous informant that both men engaged in sexual relations with underage prostitutes.
“It is irrelevant whether the allegation that defendants engaged in sexual relations with underage prostitutes” resulted in criminal charges, the judge said.
Lowell said Monday there are still additional challenges pending in which decisions could affect other charges in the case. He said he’d ask the federal court of appeals in Philadelphia to review several of Monday’s rulings.
“Many of the motions raise important and novel legal questions that often require review by trial and appellate courts,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “The government, we, and even the court in this case acknowledged that additional review would occur here no matter how the motions were decided.”
Prosecutors claim the doctor’s gifts included a weekend with a woman at a luxury Paris hotel -- where the senator wanted a king-size bed -- and use of a private jet for Menendez and unidentified guests to vacation at Melgen’s villa in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez in turn flexed his political muscle to win visa applications for three of Melgen’s girlfriends -- one a Brazilian model and lawyer, one a Dominican model and another a Ukrainian model, the U.S. said.
At a Sept. 17 hearing, Walls postponed the trial from Oct. 13 to next year, saying it probably wouldn’t take place until the fall of 2016.
Menendez has vowed to remain in office.
“I’m angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption, and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator, and my friendship, into something that is improper,” he said hours after his indictment was unsealed in April.
Melgen was later indicted on health-care fraud charges in Florida.
The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-00155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).