The Menendez Trial and the Future of Bribery

The prosecution has finished presenting its case in the trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Menendez and his co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, are facing multiple counts of bribery and related charges. The government alleges that in exchange for gifts from Melgen including private jet trips, luxury vacations, and large political donations, Menendez interceded on Melgen’s behalf in various disputes he was having with the federal government. (A more detailed analysis of the indictment is available here.)

Senator Menendez faces corruption charges

Senator Robert Menendez

When the government rested last week, the judge made some comments that appeared to question whether the bribery case could survive the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in McDonnell v. United States. This led to widespread speculation that the judge might dismiss many of the charges. But on Monday the judge ruled there was enough evidence to go to the jury. The defense is now putting on its case.

Menendez makes two primary types of claims concerning the bribery charges. The first is that the things he agreed to do for Melgen did not qualify as “official acts” under McDonnell and thus could not support a bribery conviction. The second is that, even if Menendez did perform official acts, they were not in response to any gifts from Melgen but were simply done out of friendship or as part of Menendez’s routine Senate responsibilities.

The McDonnell case has been looming over the Menendez prosecution from the beginning. If the Senator is convicted, I think there is a good chance that at least some of the bribery charges will indeed be overturned on appeal. But I believe it will be based primarily not on McDonnell but on a different Supreme Court case decided almost two decades ago.

McDonnell and “Official Acts”

The Supreme Court in McDonnell held that in any federal bribery case the prosecution must prove the public official agreed to be influenced in the performance of an “official act” as defined in 18 U.S.C. 201, the federal bribery statute. The Court concluded that Governor McDonnell’s actions —  making phone calls, arranging meetings, and holding an event at the Governor’s mansion — did not rise to the level of “official acts” and could not support a bribery conviction. (For a critique of McDonnell and its “official act” holding, you can see my posts here and here.)

The “official act” argument says, in effect, that even if there were a deal or quid pro quo, what the public official did – the quo – was not substantial enough to justify a bribery charge. The official can admit there was a link between his actions and the gifts he received, but argue that those actions were trivial or were simply routine political courtesies.

The McDonnell opinion has already resulted in some high-profile convictions being thrown out, including that of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Senator Menendez has argued from the beginning of his case that the things he did for Dr. Melgen did not amount to official acts, and the judge has repeatedly rejected his arguments. As I wrote here, I think the judge is correct. If Menendez is convicted and those convictions are later overturned, I don’t expect it to be on the McDonnell “official act” ground.

Melgen is accused of bribing Senator Menendez

Dr. Salomon Melgen

Quid Pro Quo and the “Stream of Benefits” Theory 

Assuming Menendez did perform official acts, to be bribery those acts still needed to be done in exchange for the gifts he received from Melgen. This is the requirement of a quid pro quo, or corrupt intent. This is Menendez’s other main line of defense: he says that anything he did for Melgen was either out of friendship or was part of his general oversight and policy duties as a Senator, not in response to the gifts he received.

Some counts of the indictment related to Melgen’s hefty political contributions to Menendez allege a direct quid pro quo (Counts 9-14). They charge that in exchange for a particular donation, Menendez took a particular identified official act, such as advocating on Melgen’s behalf before the State Department or Department of Health and Human Services.

But a number of the charges (Counts 2-8) rely on a different bribery theory, known as “stream of benefits.” These counts charge that Menendez accepted gifts such as trips on Melgen’s private jet in exchange for “being influenced in the performance of official acts, as opportunities arose.” The specific official acts are not identified in the individual bribery counts, although a large number of official acts are described in the indictment as a whole.

Prosecutors use this “steam of benefits” theory in cases where the bribe payer essentially has the public official on retainer. In exchange for a series of gifts over time, the public official agrees do things to benefit the bribe payer when opportunities arise. It might not be possible to prove a direct link between any particular gift and any particular official act; what is charged is the continuing corrupt relationship, a sort of ongoing “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” theory.

The Supreme Court has never weighed in on this stream of benefits theory. It has been widely accepted in the lower courts, including those in the Third Circuit where Menendez is on trial. But Menendez’s attorneys claim that McDonnell has changed the legal landscape here as well.

The trial judge made some comments last week suggesting he might find that the stream of benefits theory did not survive McDonnell. In the end, though, he agreed with the government that McDonnell’s requirement that an official act be specific and focused does not mean the act has to be identified at the time of the corrupt agreement. In other words, the deal may be, “I’ll give you a stream of benefits over time, and in exchange you agree to do things for me, as the opportunities arise, that qualify as official acts.” The parties have to agree that the public official will perform official acts, but they don’t have to agree up front what the precise official acts might be.

As far as the impact of McDonnell itself is concerned, that seems like the right answer. McDonnell did not discuss the stream of benefits theory and there’s no particular reason to believe that the “official act” requirement, standing alone, would invalidate that theory.

But I think the Supreme Court’s overall approach in McDonnell does suggest the Court might well reject the stream of benefits bribery theory if given the opportunity. That rejection would primarily be based not on the holding of McDonnell, but on the language of the federal bribery statute itself and the reasoning of a 1999 Supreme Court case, United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California.

The Sun-Diamond Decision

In Sun-Diamond the defendant, a large agricultural cooperative, was charged with giving illegal gratuities to the Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. The crime of gratuities, 18 U.S.C. 201(c), appears in the same statute as federal bribery, 18 U.S.C. 201(b). It prohibits giving a public official a thing of value “for or because of any official act.” It differs from bribery in that no corrupt intent to influence the official is required; a gratuity can be a mere “thank you” for an official act that has already been performed.

Sun-Diamond was prosecuted on what was sometimes called a “status gratuity” theory. The government didn’t identify any particular official acts by Espy to which the gifts were linked. Instead, it argued it was enough that the gifts were based on Espy’s official position and were made with the hope of building up a reservoir of goodwill with Espy, perhaps to influence or reward some unspecified official act in the future.

The Supreme Court rejected this theory. It was not enough, the Court held, to charge Sun-Diamond with paying gratuities to Espy based on his status or for official acts not named in the indictment. The Court found that section 201(c)’s requirement that a gratuity be “for or because of any official act” means a specific official act must be identified. The Court particularly focused on the phrase “any official act,” holding that this language “seems pregnant with the requirement that some particular official act be identified and proved.” It specifically rejected the alternative, broader interpretation that “any official act” meant any one of the universe of potential official acts “without specification as to which one.”

Did the Stream of Benefits Bribery Theory Survive Sun-Diamond?

Sun-Diamond rejected a gratuity prosecution based on a stream of gifts not linked to any particular official acts. But in the wake of Sun-Diamond, lower courts have continued to uphold the stream of benefits theory in bribery prosecutions. Courts have held that the reasoning of Sun-Diamond does not apply to bribery cases because bribery requires proof of a higher level of intent, a corrupt quid pro quo. That’s true, but as one of my old law professors liked to say, is that a difference that makes a difference?

The language of the gratuities and bribery statutes is strikingly similar. The bribery statute in section 201(b)(2)(A) prohibits a public official from accepting anything of value in exchange for agreeing to be “influenced in the performance of any official act.” That phrase – “any official act” – is precisely the language that the Court in Sun-Diamond said required a particular official act to be identified and proved. It’s not clear to me how the different levels of intent required for the two crimes makes any difference at all when it comes to interpreting this statutory language. For either a gratuity or a bribe, the statute and reasoning of Sun-Diamond appear to require a link to a particular, identifiable official act.

There is another reason to be suspicious of lower court decisions upholding the stream of benefits theory after Sun-Diamond: most of those cases involved prosecutions for honest services fraud or Hobbs Act extortion, not section 201 bribery. Courts in those cases typically were applying general bribery law principles, not parsing the precise statutory language of 18 U.S.C. 201. One of the leading “stream of benefits” decisions, a 2007 case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit called United States v. Ganim (authored by now-Justice Sotomayor when she was on the appeals court) made precisely that point. Judge Sotomayor noted that Sun-Diamond hinged on the precise wording of section 201 and that the same reasoning did not necessarily apply to other corruption statutes, including the Hobbs Act charges at issue in Ganim.

Menendez is also charged with honest services fraud, but the bulk of the bribery charges in his indictment are under 18 U.S.C. 201. McDonnell and Sun-Diamond make it clear that when interpreting section 201 the Supreme Court will not look to common-law bribery principles but will strictly interpret the precise statutory language. As a result, lower court cases upholding the “stream of benefits” theory in honest services fraud or Hobbs Act cases are of limited value when considering how the Supreme Court would rule in Menendez’s case. And McDonnell suggests that however the Court ends up defining bribery for purposes of section 201, it will apply that same bribery definition to honest services fraud and the Hobbs Act as well.

The Menendez defense argues that the stream of benefits theory does not survive McDonnell. I think the better argument is that it actually did not survive Sun-Diamond and the Supreme Court just has not yet had a chance to say so. The Court’s approach to statutory interpretation in McDonnell simply further highlights why it is unlikely to buy the stream of benefits theory for bribery.

The Defense: Playing the Long Game

The trial judge is likely to let the jury decide the Menendez charges. Even if the judge thinks some of the bribery theories may be invalid, he will likely feel constrained by Third Circuit precedent to let the case go to the jury.

Senator Menendez is in part playing a long game, hoping that even if he is convicted he ultimately will prevail on appeal. Don’t forget that Governor McDonnell was convicted at trial and his conviction was affirmed by a unanimous Court of Appeals before the Supreme Court ultimately took the case and unanimously reversed.

If the Menendez case ever were to reach the Supreme Court, I think there’s a good chance the Court would reject the stream of benefits bribery theory. A number of counts against Menendez and Melgen would remain, so that alone would not mean they would walk free. But it would represent yet another step by the Court to further narrow the scope of federal public corruption law – a process that began nearly twenty years ago in Sun-Diamond.

Update: On November 16, 2017, the Menendez trial ended in a hung jury.

Update 2: On January 19, 2018, prosecutors announced they would re-try Menendez and Melgen.

Update 3: On January 31, 2018, after the judge acquitted the defendants on seven counts, prosecutors announced they would not re-try the case and dismissed all charges.

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Why Bob McDonnell Won’t Save Bob Menendez

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.

Senator Robert Menendez

Senator Robert Menendez

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. Update: On April 28, 2017, Melgen was convicted on dozens of counts of fraud in the Florida case.)

What will be the effect of the McDonnell case on the Bob Menendez trial?

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell

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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