What to Watch For at the Bob Menendez Trial

After more than two years of legal maneuvering, the trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez begins today in New Jersey. Menendez and his co-defendant, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, face eighteen counts of bribery and related offenses.

Menendez and Melgen were indicted in April of 2015. The trial has been delayed while Menendez pursued claims that his prosecution is barred by the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause. The trail judge rejected his arguments and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed that decision. The Supreme Court declined to hear Menendez’s appeal, which finally cleared the way for trial to begin this fall.

This is the first criminal trial of a United States Senator in nearly a decade. It’s the highest profile corruption case to go to trial since the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in McDonnell v. United States dramatically altered the landscape for corruption prosecutions. And given the close balance of power in the U.S. Senate, Menendez’s fate could have significant political implications for the entire country.

So in addition to all the nonstop drama in Washington these days, the drama unfolding in a Newark federal courtroom for the next six to eight weeks is worthy of attention. Here are some things to watch for at Menendez’s trial.

Federal courthouse, Newark NJ

The Allegations

The government alleges Menendez and Melgen engaged in a bribery scheme that began shortly after Menendez was first elected to the Senate in 2006 and lasted for about seven years. The government charges that Menendez agreed to use the power of his office to seek to benefit Melgen in exchange for a series of valuable gifts and donations.

Melgen’s gifts to Menendez allegedly included the following:

  • On multiple occasions Menendez, sometimes with a guest, stayed free of charge at Melgen’s villa in a luxury resort in the Dominican Republic.
  • On more than a dozen occasions Melgen flew Menendez, and sometimes his guest, to and from the Dominican villa on Melgen’s private jet. When Melgen’s jet wasn’t available, he arranged for other private jet transport for Menendez or purchased a first-class ticket for him.
  • In 2010 Melgen used his American Express points to book a suite at a Paris hotel, valued at nearly $5,000, for Menendez to use for a three day vacation.
  • In 2012 Melgen made more than $750,000 in campaign donations to benefit Menendez, as well as a $20,000 contribution to Menendez’s legal defense fund.

In return, the government alleges Menendez did the following for Melgen:

  • Menendez pressured the State Department to influence the government of the Dominican Republic to move forward on a valuable contract owned by Melgen to provide cargo screening services in Dominican ports.
  • Menendez tried to stop U.S. Customs and Border Protection from donating shipping container monitoring and inspection equipment to the Dominican Republic, because that equipment would have undermined the value of Melgen’s contract.
  • Menendez personally and repeatedly intervened on Melgen’s behalf with the Department of Health and Human Services (including meeting personally with the Secretary of HHS) in a proceeding where HHS claimed Melgen had overbilled Medicare by about $9 million.
  • Menendez and his staff worked to influence State Department officials to grant visas for three foreign girlfriends of Melgen to visit the United States.

The indictment charges Menendez and Melgen with conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud, and the travel act. It also charges Menendez with false statements for failing to disclose the gifts from Melgen on his annual Ethics in Government Act reports. (For a more detailed analysis of the particular charges, you can read my post here.)

Melgen has separate legal problems of his own related to his Medicare billings. This past April he was convicted of dozens of counts of Medicare fraud in Florida. His sentencing in that case has been postponed pending the outcome of this trial.

The Central Issue: Was There Corrupt Intent?

The key issue in the case is going to be proving corrupt intent, the quid pro quo required for a bribery conviction. There’s not going to be much dispute about the underlying events. No one will deny that the private jet trips, vacations, and political donations took place. Menendez will dispute some details of his various meetings on Melgen’s behalf, but no one will deny the meetings happened.

As in so many white collar cases, the key will be proving what was going on in the defendants’ minds. The government needs to show that Melgen gave the gifts because he wanted some official action from Menendez in return, and that Menendez accepted the gifts with that same understanding.

The defendants claim there was no corrupt intent. Melgen says the things he provided to Menendez were strictly out of friendship. Menendez claims that anything he did on Melgen’s behalf was not because of the gifts but was either part of his Senate legislative and oversight duties or simply favors on behalf of an old friend.

Of course friendship and corruption are not mutually exclusive. Just as my friend and I can rob a bank together, my Senator friend and I can engage in a corruption scheme. Even if friendship was part of the motivation for Melgen’s largess, that is not a defense so long as at least part of the motive was a corrupt intent to influence – and to be influenced in – the performance of official acts.

The sheer lavishness of the gifts will make the “friendship” argument challenging for the defense. There will likely not be many jurors who can relate to the idea of friends giving each other private jet travel and luxury vacations.

The other challenge for the “friendship” defense is that it seems to paint a picture of an oddly one-sided friendship. Friends do give each other gifts, but it is typically more of a two-way street. Melgen gave Menendez about a million dollars worth of gifts, but what did Menendez ever give Melgen in return — other than the exercise of his official powers?

Senator Menendez faces multiple counts of corruption

Senator Bob Menendez

Proving Corrupt Intent

The best way for the government to prove intent in a bribery scheme is to have the cooperation and testimony of one side of the corrupt transaction. For example, in the Bob McDonnell case the man alleged to have bribed McDonnell was granted immunity and testified as the government’s star witness.

There has been a lot of speculation that Melgen might plead guilty and agree to testify against Menendez. Certainly he is under a lot of pressure to cut a deal to benefit himself, given his separate conviction in Florida where he faces substantial prison time. When the sentencing in that case was delayed, I thought it might mean Melgen was about to cooperate. But there has been no sign Melgen is going to roll over on Menendez. If it were going to happen, it probably would have happened by now.

Absent testimony from Melgen, the government will be left to prove intent largely by circumstantial evidence. Timing of gifts and corresponding actions will be important, and can raise an inference of a quid pro quo. For example, the most significant gifts from Melgen – more than $750,000 in contributions to various campaign funds and a legal defense fund – came in 2012. That was the same time Menendez was working most vigorously on Melgen’s behalf in both the port contract dispute and the Medicare billing dispute. In some instances, Menendez met with executive branch officials on Melgen’s behalf the same week – or even the same day — that Melgen made a substantial campaign contribution.

Concealment also is important for proof of intent. That’s where the evidence that Menendez failed to report the gifts on his financial disclosure forms will come into play. Although the false statements charge for failing to report the gifts is only a single count of the indictment, its significance is in helping to establish corrupt intent for the entire case. The government will argue Menendez failed to disclose the gifts because he knew they were corrupt and improper.

Other examples of deception also will help prove corrupt intent. For example, the government will present evidence that once the private jet trips came to light, Menendez made false public statements claiming there had only been three such trips when in fact there were more than a dozen.

In addition, there will be evidence that some of the campaign donations were made by Melgen’s family members, to keep them within legal limits, but that Melgen then used corporate funds to pay the family members back. This amounts to laundering of campaign contributions to disguise the fact that all of the money is actually coming from Melgen’s corporation and helps conceal the depth of the connection between Melgen and Menendez.

McDonnell and “Official Acts”

A key legal issue is whether the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Bob McDonnell case provides any cover for Menendez. In McDonnell the Court ruled that in a corruption case the government must prove the public official agreed to perform “official acts.” The Court defined official acts very narrowly, and thereby dramatically restricted the scope of federal corruption law.

Menendez has repeatedly argued that his actions on behalf of Melgen did not amount to official acts as defined by McDonnell. This is a strictly legal defense, of a different character than the factual defense based on lack of corrupt intent. Relying on McDonnell Menendez can basically argue, “Even if there was a quid pro quo and I acted in exchange for the gifts that Melgen gave me, that can’t amount to bribery because the actions I took were not significant enough to be official acts.”

Menendez actually undercut his own “official acts” arguments earlier in the case. When arguing that his actions were protected by the Speech or Debate clause, he characterized them as a central part of his duties as a Senator. As the government has pointed out, in one pleading he argued that invoking oversight authority and threatening to use his power as a Senator would qualify as “official acts.” But now that his Speech or Debate arguments have been rejected, his earlier statements have come back to bite him.

With the McDonnell case itself and other cases that have been overturned since McDonnell, such as the  conviction of Sheldon Silver, former Speaker of the New York General Assembly, the problem was the jury instructions. In neither case did the courts say there was no way the defendants could be found guilty of corruption. The problem was that the trials took place before the Supreme Court announced its new “official act” requirement and so the jury instructions didn’t comply with that requirement. The government won’t have that problem here; in an entirely post-McDonnell trial it can ensure that the jury instructions comply with the McDonnell standard.

Menendez has tried unsuccessfully several times to get the judge to dismiss his case based on McDonnell. For reasons that I’ve explained in detail here and here, in the end I don’t expect this to be a problem for the prosecution. I believe the government will be able to demonstrate that Menendez did agree to perform official acts under the McDonnell standard. The key question, as noted above, is going to be why he did so – was there corrupt intent.

Possible Door Opening

The defense will have to tread lightly in some areas to avoid opening the door to the introduction of potentially damaging information. For example, the initial investigation of Menendez and Melgen was based on allegations that the two had consorted with underage prostitutes while at Melgen’s Dominican villa. Those allegations did not result in any criminal charges, but during that investigation the government learned of the other information that led to this indictment.

At various times Menendez has argued his prosecution is politically motivated, claiming, for example, that the Obama administration brought the case to punish him for his opposition to Obama’s policy towards Cuba. The government has said it has no reason to introduce evidence of the prostitution allegations and has no intention of doing so. But if the defense attacks the motives of the prosecution and raises its conspiracy theories, it may open the door to the government bringing in that evidence to explain why the case was actually begun.

Information about Melgen’s conviction for Medicare fraud, or Menendez’s protected Speech or Debate activity, also should not be a part of the case but potentially could be introduced if the defense make arguments or puts on testimony that would allow the government to raise those issues in response.

The Bottom Line

Unlike McDonnell, I don’t expect this case to turn on a technical legal argument. The case is going to come down to whether the government can prove that Menendez corruptly agreed to sell the powers of his office. That’s a factual question that ultimately will be decided by the jury.

The defense has repeatedly shown it is not afraid to be aggressive in responding to the government’s allegations. This will be a hard-fought case. The indictment paints a compelling picture of corruption, but anything can happen at a trial. Stay tuned.

Update: On November 16, 2017, the Menendez trial ended with a hung jury and a mistrial.

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