U.S. Senator Robert Menendez is facing trial this fall on corruption charges. His lawyers will claim the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Bob McDonnell case means the charges against Menendez cannot stand. But the effect of the McDonnell case on the Bob Menendez trial is likely to be pretty limited.
New Jersey Democrat Menendez and his co-defendant Dr. Salomon Melgen were indicted in April 2015. (You can find my detailed analysis of the indictment here.) The case has been on hold for two years while Menendez pursued claims that his prosecution is barred by the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause. The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected those arguments. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear his appeal, finally clearing the way for the case to go to trial.
But while Menendez was pursing his Speech or Debate appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court decided McDonnell v. United States. The Court reversed the convictions of the former governor of Virginia, holding that McDonnell did not perform “official acts” as defined by federal bribery law.
Senator Menendez and his lawyers are hoping that McDonnell will breathe new life into his own defense. They will argue that Senator Menendez, like Governor McDonnell, did not agree to perform any official acts. But for Menendez that’s going to be an uphill battle.
The Charges Against Senator Menendez
The Menendez/Melgen indictment describes a long-term bribery scheme. It charges that Melgen repeatedly provided Menendez with valuable gifts including multiple trips on his private jet, repeated stays at a luxury villa in the Dominican Republic, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to campaigns and legal defense funds. In exchange, Menendez allegedly interceded on Melgen’s behalf in several different government disputes. The government also alleges Menendez took steps to conceal these facts, including failing to report any of Melgen’s gifts.
The actions Menendez allegedly took on Melgen’s behalf fall into three general categories:
Visas: In 2007 and 2008, Menendez and his staff contacted various embassy and State Department personnel to help three different foreign girlfriends of Melgen obtain visas to come to the United States.
Port Screening Contract: Melgen owned an interest in a company that had a contract with the Dominican Republic to provide x-ray screening of cargo entering Dominican ports. The contract, potentially worth many millions of dollars, had been tied up in disputes. Menendez and his staff contacted different State Department officials, urging them to pressure the Dominican government to implement the contract. At one point Menendez met with an Assistant Secretary of State and said he was unsatisfied with the way State was handling the matter. Menendez allegedly threatened to hold a hearing and call the Assistant Secretary to testify.
Medicare dispute: Melgen, a prominent Florida ophthalmologist, was embroiled for several years in a multi-million dollar dispute over his Medicare billings. He was allegedly using an eye medication designed for a single patient to treat two or three people. He would then bill Medicare as if he had purchased a separate vial for each patient. When Medicare discovered this practice they began pursuing claims against Melgen for overbilling.
Menendez and his staff worked for several years to help Melgen resolve this dispute. Menendez personally met with the Secretary of Health and Human Services and with the acting director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to advocate on Melgen’s behalf.
(As I write this, Dr. Melgen is currently on trial in Florida on a separate indictment charging him with Medicare fraud based in part on this scheme.)
The McDonnell Decision
A jury convicted former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen of multiple counts of corruption in September 2014. The McDonnells accepted more than $170,000 in gifts and undocumented “loans” from businessman Jonnie Williams. In return, prosecutors charged, the McDonnells agreed to promote Anatabloc, a dietary supplement made by Williams’s company, within the Virginia government.
A unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the convictions. But in June 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that the steps taken by McDonnell on Williams’s behalf did not constitute “official acts” under federal bribery law. (You can find my more detailed analysis and critique of the Court’s opinion here.)
The Court based its decision on the language of the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201. That statute defines bribery, in part, as a public official accepting something of value in exchange for agreeing to be influenced in the performance of any “official act.” It further defines “official act” as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official . . . . ”
The evidence had shown that McDonnell made phone calls on Williams’s behalf, arranged meetings for Williams with other Virginia government officials, and hosted a product launch event for Anatabloc at the Governor’s mansion. The Court held that these actions, standing alone, did not amount to “official acts” and could not support a bribery conviction.
The Court broke its analysis down into two steps, focusing on the precise language of the official act definition. First, one must identify the relevant “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” to which the alleged bribe relates. This language, the Court held, connotes a “formal exercise of government power, such as a lawsuit, hearing, or administrative determination.” It suggests something that is “relatively circumscribed – the kind of thing that can be put on an agenda, tracked for progress, and checked off as complete.”
Second, the Court said, the public official must agree to take a “decision or action” “on” the relevant matter, suit or controversy. This requires that the official take some steps to address or decide the matter, or to influence or advise others to do so. In particular, the requirement that the decision or action be “on” the matter – and not merely “about” or “related to” the matter – suggests the official is working to resolve it somehow.
The Court concluded that McDonnell’s actions did not amount to official acts under this analysis. There were several Anatabloc-related issues that could constitute a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy.” But simply making phone calls or arranging meetings did not amount to “decisions or actions on” any of those questions. McDonnell introduced Williams to various officials and extended other political courtesies related to Anatabloc. But McDonnell did not himself take steps to resolve any of the matters or pressure others to do so. Accordingly, the Court concluded, a bribery conviction based on McDonnell’s actions could not stand.
Did Senator Menendez Perform “Official Acts?”
Even before McDonnell was decided, Senator Menendez had filed motions arguing he had not performed any official acts. The trial court denied those motions back in 2015. Now, in the wake of McDonnell, Menendez will undoubtedly renew those arguments.
If we follow the Supreme Court’s two-step approach from McDonnell, it’s pretty easy to define the relevant “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” for each aspect of Menendez’s case:
1) Should the State Department grant a visa to allow this individual to enter the United States?
2) Should the U.S. government work to persuade the Dominican government to implement the port security contract?
3) Should HHS modify its rules concerning the dosing of a particular eye medication? Or, more specifically, should the Department pursue its claims against Dr. Melgen about alleged overdosing?
Each of these is a circumscribed issue, a question that could be put on an agenda and checked off as resolved. They are the type of specific administrative or policy matters that McDonnell requires.
Menendez will argue that he, like McDonnell, did not take any “decisions or actions on” the defined matters. But Menendez’s actions were much more substantial than McDonnell’s. Menendez did not simply arrange meetings for Melgen or introduce him to other officials. The Senator himself attended various meetings and otherwise advocated for Melgen’s interests. Unlike McDonnell, Menendez was actively engaged in trying to influence the outcome of the matters in question.
An official act must also involve a matter that is “pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official . . . . ” Menendez will also argue that the identified matters were never pending before him and that he did not have the power to decide them. As a result, he will claim, his advocacy on these matters cannot amount to official acts by him.
But the Supreme Court in McDonnell squarely addressed this question. The Court held that a “decision or action” may include influencing another public official who has the power to decide: “decision or action may include using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an ‘official act,’ or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an ‘official act’ by another official.’”
In other words, the official act does not have to be one the defendant himself has the power to resolve. It is sufficient if the defendant attempts to pressure, persuade, or advise another public official to perform an official act.
In the Menendez case the relevant matters were pending before various Executive Branch officials. Their resolution of those questions would constitute official acts. The indictment alleges that Senator Menendez attempted to pressure or persuade those officials to resolve the matters in Melgen’s favor. McDonnell makes it clear that such efforts can be official acts by Menendez,.
Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
Menendez has put himself in a bit of a box with the legal arguments he has already pursued. He argued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that the actions he took on Melgen’s behalf were part of his official duties as a U.S. Senator and should therefore be shielded by the Speech or Debate Clause. Courts rejected those arguments because the Speech or Debate Clause shields only legislative activities. Lobbying Executive Branch officials is not protected.
Now Menendez will be arguing that those same actions were so unconnected to his position as a Senator that they could not be official acts. As the government has pointed out, Menendez effectively has argued that nothing a U.S. Senator does can be prosecuted as bribery: if it’s not a legislative act shielded by the Speech or Debate clause, then it’s not an official act and can’t support a bribery conviction. Heads I win, tails you lose.
For example, in their original motion to dismiss based on failure to allege official acts, filed on July 20, 2015, his lawyers argued: “With respect to a U.S. Senator, invoking oversight authority and a threatened use of official powers would be an official act, but it also would be immunized by the Speech or Debate Clause.” (p. 6 fn. 4). But the courts have now rejected the latter half of that claim.
With respect to the Medicare dispute and the port contract issue, the government is indeed alleging that Menendez threatened to hold hearings and otherwise to invoke his oversight authority. Having conceded that these would amount to official acts, it will be a challenge now for the defense to claim otherwise without developing whiplash.
Effect of the McDonnell case on the Bob Menendez trial
As with all criminal trials, the Menendez case is going to come down to the government’s evidence. Menendez may claim that in his interactions with Executive Branch officials he was merely seeking information. He may argue he was not advocating for Melgen or trying to influence those officials. If that turns out to be true, it may be a defense. Merely attending a meeting to gather information would probably not fit the Supreme Court’s definition of official act.
But the government is alleging much more. It intends to prove that Menendez was vigorously advocating on Melgen’s behalf, trying to persuade or pressure Executive Branch officials to decide questions in Melgen’s favor. Such actions would fall squarely within McDonnell and would qualify as official acts by Menendez.
McDonnell’s primary effect will be on the jury instructions. Menendez’s lawyers will not get the case dismissed prior to trial based on the official act issue. Even in McDonnell the Supreme Court did not say it was impossible for any jury to find McDonnell guilty. The problem was that the jury was not properly instructed about the definition of official acts.
The McDonnell case will therefore shape the Menendez jury instructions concerning what the government must prove about official acts. The defense will argue the government has not met its burden. But if it proves the allegations in the indictment, the government should have no trouble meeting the McDonnell standard.
Every public corruption defendant for the foreseeable future is going to seek salvation in the McDonnell opinion. Menendez may have some other viable defenses, including his claim that there was no quid pro quo and that Melgen’s gifts were based simply on friendship. But the McDonnell case and the definition of official act are unlikely to save him.
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