Robert Menendez, enamored of a luxury lifestyle that he couldn’t afford, misused his perch in the Senate to repeatedly help a prominent eye doctor in exchange for lavish hotel stays and other gifts, federal prosecutors said Monday at the start of the first corruption trial of a sitting U.S. senator in a decade.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery and conspiracy for accepting rides on a private jet, visits to an island resort and a stay at a five-star hotel in Paris, in exchange for helping the business interests of Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend who was recently convicted of Medicare fraud.
The trial carries high political stakes for the closely-divided Senate. A conviction could allow New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, an early supporter of President Trump, to replace the once-powerful Democrat.
If Menendez is convicted, Republicans would demand he immediately resign his seat. Democrats would be expected to support him pending an appeal, or at least until Christie leaves office in January. Menendez’s current term runs out in 2019.
Menendez drew a strong vote of support Monday when Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey’s junior senator, appeared in the courtroom while Menendez’s lawyer presented his opening argument.
Before he entered the federal courthouse in Newark, Menendez told reporters that “not once have I dishonored my public office.”
Choking back tears, he said he had “always acted in accordance with the law. And I believe when all the facts are known, I will be vindicated.”
Prosecutors said Menendez illegally assisted Melgen in exchange for political donations and gifts, pressuring the State Department to issue visas to women described as Melgen’s girlfriends, calling to help Melgen win a contract for port security in the Dominican Republic, and seeking to assist him in a Medicare billing dispute.
The reason, they said, was “Melgen gave Menendez access to a lifestyle that read like a travel brochure from lifestyles of the rich and famous.”
Melgen also directed more than $750,000 in campaign contributions to entities that supported Menendez. The government alleges they were inducements to get Menendez to use his influence on Melgen’s behalf.
Menendez and Melgen “definitely corrupted one of the most powerful offices in our country,” Peter Koski, a prosecutor with the public integrity section of the Justice Department, told the jury in his opening argument.
Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors were distorting a close friendship that began long before Menendez joined the Senate in 2006. The two men spent holidays together and attended family events like weddings and parents’ funerals.
Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Menendez, said there was “not one single piece of evidence” showing that the senator had abused his position. “The evidence shows there was no quid pro quo, no this for that,” he said.
But Koski said that the lack of a stated agreement didn’t eliminate the corruption. “Your common sense tells you that’s not the way people behave when they commit crimes,” the prosecutor told the jury.
“Friends can commit crimes together,” he said. “Friends can bribe each other.”
Melgen was once the top-billing doctor in Medicare. He was convicted in April of 67 counts of Medicare fraud, involving more than $100 million, in West Palm Beach, Fla., and potentially faces a 20-year prison term. Sentencing has been delayed until after the New Jersey trial.
Despite speculation he would testify against Menendez, Melgen has not agreed to help the prosecution in exchange for leniency.
That will create a challenge for the prosecution as the trial proceeds.
The government has no incriminating tapes or a cooperating witness who would testify that Menendez was trading official favors for campaign contributions or other gifts.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have tightened federal laws on bribery, including a unanimous decision last year to reverse the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.
The trial is expected to take about six weeks. U.S. District Judge William Walls last week turned down Menendez’s request to suspend the trial on days when he is needed in Washington for votes.
A son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez has been a fixture of New Jersey’s hard-edged politics since 1986, when he was elected as the corruption-busting mayor of Union City. Two years later he was elected to the state Legislature, and in 1992, he was elected to the U.S. House, where he served six terms.
He was appointed to the U.S. Senate in January 2006 by Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who had resigned his seat when he was elected governor. Reelected by a wide margin in 2012, Menendez headed the powerful Foreign Relations Committee for two years until he was indicted in April 2015.
He says he intends to seek reelection next year. He still has strong poll numbers in New Jersey and a $3-million campaign war chest. He also has raised money for his legal defense fund.
The Republican National Committee has launched an online campaign seeking to force Menendez out of office if he is convicted. An ad cites Democrats calling for Sen. Ted Stevens to resign after he was convicted of corruption in 2008.
Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, was the last sitting U.S. senator to go on trial. His conviction was overturned in 2009 after a Justice Department investigation concluded prosecutors had committed misconduct.
4:05 p.m.: The story was updated with details from the opening arguments
The story was originally posted at 9:30 a.m.