The judge at Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial refused to throw out any of the charges against the New Jersey Democrat on Monday in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowing the definition of bribery.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Williams Walls was a major defeat for Menendezand a huge victory for prosecutors, who warned that dismissing the charges would torpedo nearly all other bribery cases and open the door wide to graft.
Walls rejected defense lawyers’ arguments that the allegations against Menendezdidn’t meet the new, narrower definition of bribery under a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that reversed the conviction of Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia.
In recent months, the McDonnell ruling led judges to throw out bribery convictions of at least three other former public officials, including a Pennsylvania congressman.
Federal prosecutors in the Menendez trial rested their case last week. The defense will now begin presenting its case.
Menendez, 63, is charged with accepting free flights on a private jet, luxury hotel stays and other gifts from wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen over a seven-year period. In exchange, prosecutors say, he pressured government officials on Melgen’s behalf over an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a contract to provide port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic.
The most serious charge Menendez and Melgen face, honest services fraud, is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The two men deny the allegations and say the gifts were a result of their longtime friendship.
Last week, the judge surprised some when he set aside what was expected to be the trial’s central issue: whether Menendez’s meetings and other dealings with government officials could be considered “official acts” under the McDonnell ruling’s new definition.
Instead, the judge focused on the “stream of benefits” theory, which in the past held that a bribe doesn’t have to be made with the intent to prompt a specific official action.
Menendez’s and Melgen’s attorneys argued that language in the McDonnell decision requires that an alleged bribe must be given in exchange for an official taking an action — or agreeing to take action — on a specific “question, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.”
Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell argued the prosecution used a “mix-and-match” strategy to pair up Melgen’s gifts with actions Menendez took over the years, without establishing direct connections.
“They are one, two years apart,” he said. “Sometimes the bribe is allegedly for something three months before.”
In response, Justice Department attorney Peter Koski argued that the Medicare dispute and the port contract were the specific matters at issue and that a public official doesn’t have to specify how he will perform his end of the bargain.
In a brief filed Saturday, prosecutors cited cases since the McDonnell ruling in which, they said, federal appeals courts have left the stream of benefits theory undisturbed. Invalidating it, they wrote, would “jettison the vast majority of bribery prosecutions, and broadly legalize pay-to-play politics.”