The two men have been saying it from the beginning: U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen are simply old friends. Bribery was never in the picture.
That is the narrative playing out in the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, as defense attorneys present their case in the corruption trial involving lavish hotels, private jets, and alleged political malfeasance.
It is a sharp departure from what jurors have heard from U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors for most of the trial, which is now stretching into its seventh week.
The government has alleged Melgen plied Menendez with gifts and political contributions in exchange for government favors from the Garden State’s senior senator. Both men are facing about a dozen counts of bribery, conspiracy, and fraud charges.
They have pleaded not guilty.
Among the favors alleged in the indictment is an intervention by Menendez on Melgen’s behalf in a private contract dispute the ophthalmologist had in the Dominican Republic.
At issue is whether Menendez strong-armed government officials to help his friend — or whether he simply raised legitimate public policy concerns brought to his attention by Melgen.
Melgen, who held a stake in a company that sold screening equipment to shipping ports, claimed that high-ranking officials in the country’s government were blocking a sale, alleging that they were corrupt.
After Melgen told Menendez about it, the senator contacted William Brownfield, a former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
In a face-to-face meeting, Menendez raised security concerns over the contract dispute and apparently vowed to call a public hearing if Brownfield did not resolve it by a set deadline. Testifying in Newark Monday, Brownfield claimed that he did not take Menendez’s promise as a threat.
But during cross-examination Tuesday, Brownfield admitted he wrote an email to colleagues relaying that Menendez had “threatened” to make the issue public.
“Those are the words that I chose to use in that message on that day,” Brownfield acknowledged under questioning.
Other witnesses called this week include another longtime friend of Menendez and a former political fundraiser.
Tasos Zambas, a financial adviser, testified that he grew close to Menendez after moving to the U.S. in 1975 as a refugee from Cyprus.
For years, Zambas tried to return to visit his family but was denied entry into the country. He complained to Menendez, who quickly promised to take Zambas to Cyprus himself.
Eventually, the two men went.
“He’s a man of the highest integrity,” Zambas said. “He does very well for the little people of New Jersey.”