Attorneys in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez gathered on Tuesday to hash out the legal instructions the judge is to give to the jury before deliberations, a crucial phase of the trial in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that has already prompted the overturning of several public corruption convictions.
After eight weeks of testimony, jurors could hear closing arguments from both sides on Wednesday or Thursday.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is charged with taking gifts from a wealthy donor between 2006 and 2013 in exchange for political influence, including lobbying government officials on behalf of the donor’s business interests. The donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, also is on trial.
The two men have denied any bribery arrangement and say the gifts, which included flights on Melgen’s private jet and a luxury hotel stay in Paris, are an outgrowth of their longtime friendship.
Before jurors hear closing arguments, they will be instructed by U.S. District Judge William Walls on the specifics of the law. That is especially important here because the definition of official bribery was narrowed by the Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Since then, courts have cited the decision to toss the convictions of former New York state lawmakers Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and Dean Skelos, a Republican, and former Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, also a Democrat.
The judge in Menendez’s trial already denied the defense’s motion to throw out the case on the grounds that the prosecution didn’t demonstrate a bribery agreement under the McDonnell definitions. Both sides argued Tuesday over how the judge should instruct the jury on those points.
The defense proposed that the judge tell jurors they would have to find Menendez took gifts in exchange for official acts that “were agreed upon at the time of the exchange” to find him guilty. That conforms to language in the McDonnell decision, the defense wrote.
In contrast, prosecutors wrote that the judge should tell jurors they need only find Menendez took a thing of value “corruptly in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act” to find him guilty.
Menendez and Melgen each face six bribery counts, one conspiracy count and four related counts. Menendez also faces one count of making false statements by not reporting Melgen’s gifts on Senate disclosure forms.