Corruption and bribery trial begins for US senator

Corruption and bribery trial begins for US senator
Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) is facing a federal trial for bribery and corruption, the first for a sitting senator in over a decade. Menendez has denied the charges of lobbying on behalf of a Florida doctor and accepting gifts and donations.

The case could end Menendez’s political career if he is convicted. It could also shift the US Senate further towards the GOP, as Governor Chris Christie would most likely nominate a Republican to replace him.

“Not once have I dishonored my public office,” Menendez told reporters as he headed to a New Jersey courthouse in Newark on Wednesday, according to AP.

The 63-year-old Democrat was indicted two years ago by federal prosecutors on 12 counts, including charges of bribery, conspiracy, honest services fraud and violations of the Federal Travel Act.

“The purpose of the conspiracy was for the defendants to use Menendez’s official position as a United States Senator to benefit and enrich themselves through bribery,” the indictment said.

Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen lavished the senator with private flights to the Caribbean and Paris, expensive meals, golf outings, cash donations and other gifts in exchange for political favors that included intervening in an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute, the Justice Department said.

“Menendez withheld information from his senate staff to conceal the extent of his official action on Melgen,” prosecutors alleged.

The Ethics in Government Act of 1989 requires all US senators file an annual financial disclosure form that reports income, gifts, and financial interests. The purpose of the financial disclosure forms is to disclose, monitor, and deter conflicts of interest.

Prosecutors allege the Senator accepted numerous free rides on Melgen’s private jets, often flying out of the Teterboro, New Jersey airport, and on more than one occasion bringing a guest along. Once, a companion flew alone to meet Menendez in the Dominican Republic. There were at least seven round trips, made between 2006 and 2010, according to the indictment.

Menendez has admitted flying as a guest of Melgen on at least three occasions, but said he paid back the cost of those flights years later, after being questioned about them.

The indictment said Menendez solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions from Melgen to entities that benefited the senator’s election campaign and a separate legal defense fund. There was a $751,500 donation to his 2012 re-election campaign to the Senate, another $143,500 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee to benefit the Menendez campaign, and other small contributions ranging from $10,000 to $20,000.

Prosecutors allege Melgen had unprecedented access to the senator and his office, and that Menendez used his Senate staff to accommodate the doctor’s requests for official action and advocated on his behalf to federal officials.

They also say Menendez advocated for Melgen’s port security business in the Dominican Republic and enforced a multi-million-dollar contract for the doctor that provided cargo screening at Dominican ports. Soon after the contact was executed, Melgen’s company and the Dominican Republic began fighting over its legitimacy and legality.

Menendez is also accused of pressuring State Department officials to give visas to three young women described as Melgen’s girlfriends.

Melgen is also facing federal charges. The doctor was convicted in April, in a separate Medicare fraud case in the Southern District of Florida. Both Melgen and Menendez have pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys called the indictment “hopelessly vague and defective.”

They said that the two men have had a 20-year bond of friendship that had little to do with politics, and that much of the indictment describes actions by Menendez’s staffers, rather than the senator himself “and many involve trivial functions rather than officials acts,”according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. If Menendez is convicted, the Senate would need a two-thirds majority to expel him. The last time that happened was in 1982, when another New Jersey Democrat, Harrison Williams, was expelled following his corruption conviction.

Menendez was indicted by the same Justice Department anti-corruption unit that had been heavily criticized for its failed 2008 prosecution of US Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Though his conviction was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct, Stevens lost his re-election bid and died two years later in a plane crash.