Minutes after the first witness took the stand Thursday in the federal corruption case against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, Judge William H. Walls excused the jury so he could caution prosecutors against turning the proceedings into a “tabloid trial.”
The courtroom drama occurred over questions about a hotel room booked for Menendez in 2010 for a trip to Paris, one of the gifts prosecutors allege were exchanged for government favors in a years-long bribery scheme involving the senator.
Before the Paris trip, Menendez emailed co-defendant and friend, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, asking him to book one of two rooms using his American Express points, promising to reimburse Melgen later.
When prosecutor Peter Koski asked the FBI analyst on the stand about which of the rooms Menendez listed first in his email — implying that Menendez may have nudged Melgen to book the more expensive one — Walls abruptly sent the jury out of the courtroom and issued a warning to the attorneys.
“I said that I was not going to permit this to be a tabloid trial,” Wall said. “Whether these defendants engaged in bribery does not depend on whether the senator chose a more expensive room. We’re not talking about the Days Inn. We’re talking about very upscale lodging in Paris.” (The cost difference was just over $100.)
Later, Walls again blasted prosecutors for dwelling on details of the Paris trip that he considered unrelated to the bribery allegations against Menendez and Melgen, including the government’s inference that Menendez could not afford to pay for three nights in the hotel.
“You’re trying to jump over your shadow,” Wall told prosecutors, urging attorneys from both sides to abide by the rules of evidence and not embellish details to sensationalize their cases.
The heated courtroom exchanges came one day after opening statements kicked off the trial in federal court in Newark. Menendez and Melgen each face about a dozen counts of bribery, conspiracy, and fraud.
Both have pleaded not guilty.
On Wednesday, Koski urged jurors to “pay close attention to the timing in this case.” He argued that Melgen’s gifts to Menendez often coincided with government favors for the ophthalmologist.
Those gifts included free flights on a private jet, trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic, and political contributions meant to bolster Menendez’s re-election campaign. “Melgen’s millions bought Sen. Menendez access to a lifestyle he couldn’t afford but enjoyed greatly,” Koski said.
Defense attorneys countered that events occurring in close proximity — such as Melgen giving Menendez a gift and Menendez emailing a government official on a matter involving Melgen — are not proof that the friends of 25 years had set up a quid-pro-quo scheme.
“That’s not evidence of a corrupt agreement,” said Kirk Ogrosky, an attorney who represents Melgen. “That’s a corrupt assumption.”