Menendez Seen Casting Charges as Favors Between Old Buddies

Senator Robert Menendez’s best defense against charges he wielded influence in exchange for campaign cash and personal perks may be that he was doing it all for a friend.

The New Jersey Democrat is accused by federal prosecutors of advancing the personal and financial interests of longtime friend Salomon Melgen in exchange for free travel and other benefits and political donations totaling almost $1 million.

The 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. says.

At a trial, the defense would be expected to argue the men had a long and deep bond and the favors were motivated by friendship and not political scheming. That might undermine the U.S. claim their actions were corrupt, said Amy Richardson, a white-collar defense lawyer who isn’t involved in the case.

“I would be showing in every way possible that what was going on was a friendship and not an official line of work,” said Richardson, of Harris Wiltshire & Grannis LLP in Washington. “These are the actions of people who have been friends for 20 years,” not of Menendez in an official capacity, she said she would argue.

Senator’s Help

According to Wednesday’s indictment, Menendez took gifts over seven years from Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who sought the senator’s help with several federal agencies. Prosecutors claim Melgen wanted Menendez to pressure the State Department to influence the Dominican Republic to honor a contract with Melgen’s cargo-screening company, and to persuade the Homeland Security Department not to donate equipment to the Caribbean country.

The indictment is thick with details about the lavishness of Melgen’s gifts and Menendez’s appetite for them.

In addition to the king-size bed for his Paris hotel, Menendez wanted a “limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower,” in the room, according to an e-mail he sent Melgen in March 2010 quoted in the indictment. “You call American Express Rewards and they will book it for you. It would need to be in my name.”

Two Planes

Melgen owned a 10-seat Hawker Siddeley and a 12-seat Bombardier Challenger. He used the planes to ferry Menendez and his guests to destinations that included Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic, where the ophthamologist had a Spanish-style villa staffed by cooks, maids and other servants. The ocean-side resort boasted “a marina, three golf courses, 13 tennis courts, three polo playing fields, a 245-acre shooting facility, a spa” and other amenities, according to the indictment.

Menendez’s clout was on display in a section of the indictment detailing the difficulties of one of Melgen’s girlfriends, a 22-year-old Dominican model, and her 18-year-old sister, had in getting U.S. tourist visas to visit the doctor in 2008.

“Neither is working. No solvency of their own. Not fully convinced of motives for travel,” a U.S. embassy employee wrote in rejecting the applications, according to the indictment.

“I would like to call ambassador tomorrow and get a reconsideration or possibly our contact at State,” Menendez e-mailed an unidentified staffer.

RM Intervened

When the two women were granted visas following a re-interview with immigration authorities, a Menendez aide wrote to another staffer that “in my view this is ONLY DUE to the fact that RM intervened.”

Menendez also intervened in visa applications of Melgen’s Brazilian and Ukrainian girlfriends, prosecutors said in their filing.

Menendez, who was divorced in 2005, and Melgen deny any wrongdoing. At a press conference Wednesday, hours after the indictment was unsealed in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, Menendez said the case is based on “false allegations by those who have a political motive to silence me.”

He 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. “They are dead wrong.”

Menendez will temporarily step down from his post as the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Friendship Defense

The existence of a friendship between the two men will be central to the defense because it would provide an innocent explanation for behavior the U.S. describes as bribery. It’s likely that defense lawyers would inundate jurors with details of the men’s 20-year friendship, lawyers said.

In a 2013 interview with Bloomberg News, Melgen said he and Menendez were “like brothers” who spoke weekly and visited one another monthly. Menendez was a leader in the Hispanic community, he said. Both men are 61.

“Absent the friendship, it looks pretty transactional,” Kelly Kramer, a white-collar defense lawyer at Mayer Brown LLP, said of the relationship between the two. “The friendship gives you an alternative narrative.”

Virginia Governor

The case will be harder for prosecutors than that of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell, a Republican who was convicted in September for using his office to benefit businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for more than $170,000 in loans and gifts, said Jeff Bellin, a professor at William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In that case, the absence of a long-running friendship made it easier for prosecutors to sell the jury on the idea that “the only reason this guy could be giving money is because he’s going to get something in exchange,” said Bellin, a former federal prosecutor.

Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor who now practices appellate law at Wiley Rein LLP in Washington, said the friendship may save Menendez in the end.

“There’s a legitimate argument that these are gifts among friends,” he said. “There’s less than a 50 percent chance of conviction. This is going to be a donnybrook.”

The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-00155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).

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