Menendez corruption case now in the hands of the jury

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Closeup of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against blue sky

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, pictured Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Union Beach, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

After nine weeks, the case is now in the hands of the 12-member jury.

Closing arguments concluded Monday in the federal corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and a wealthy friend accused of engaging in a bribery scheme that lasted for seven years.

In final remarks to the jury, defense attorney Abbe Lowell again criticized government attorneys for taking an innocent friendship and making a federal case out of it.

He told the jurors Menendez pursued his government work based on information he gleaned from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen because they were close and often spent time together — not because he was taking advantage of his political office for his friend’s gain.

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“Friendship is such a critical issue that destroys each and every one of the counts in this case,” Lowell said.

But, in the government’s rebuttal, prosecutor Peter Koski reminded the jury that friendship is not a defense for bribery.

“The defendants were friends, there is no dispute about that,” Koski said. “But the defendants’ attorneys would have you believe that’s where the analysis ends. It doesn’t.”

Justice Department prosecutors allege Melgen plied Menendez with gifts over time so that the New Jersey Democrat would become Melgen’s “personal U.S. senator,” just one call away whenever the eye doctor required the help of the federal government.

Throughout the course of the trial, government attorneys meticulously laid out the gifts exchanged and the alleged favors that accompanied them.

Melgen flew Menendez around on his private jet for free, bought the senator hotel rooms in Paris, invited him to his home in the Dominican Republic, and contributed handsomely to political organizations with ties to Menendez.

In return, prosecutors say, Menendez flexed his political muscle to Melgen’s benefit. The high-ranking Democrat helped secure travel visas for some of Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, tried to help Melgen resolve an $8.9 million Medicare overbilling case at his ophthalmology practice, and intervened in a contract dispute between an Melgen-owned business and the government of the Dominican Republic.

“Friendship and bribery can coexist ladies and gentlemen,” Koski told the jury Monday.

The charges include conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud.

Menendez is also being charged with omitting the gifts from Melgen on the annual financial disclosure forms he is required to file with the secretary of the Senate.

Further at issue in the case is what qualifies as an “official act” on the part of Menendez. In order to be guilty of bribery, a public official has to receive something of value in exchange for being influenced in the performance of an official act.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of bribery when it overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, ruling that simply making phone calls or setting up meetings without doing more does not qualify as official acts.

Citing that case, defense attorneys for Menendez and Melgen asked Judge William Walls to toss the charges.

But Walls refused, saying he would leave the “official acts” determination up to the jury.

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