NEWARK, N.J. — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez “sold his office for a lifestyle he couldn’t afford” by accepting luxury trips and other favors from a wealthy doctor seeking political influence, a government prosecutor told jurors Wednesday during opening statements of the Democrat’s corruption trial.
Menendez’s attorney responded that gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, Menendez’s longtime friend, didn’t equate to a bribery agreement. Menendez’s meetings with government officials — though they could have aided Melgen’s business interests — were “what members of Congress do” and were meant to influence future policy, attorney Abbe Lowell said.
Menendez and Melgen were indicted in 2015 and face multiple fraud and bribery charges in a case that could threaten Menendez’s political career and potentially alter the makeup of a deeply divided U.S. Senate if he’s convicted.
If he is expelled or steps down before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican would pick Menendez’s successor. A Democrat has a large polling and financial advantage in November’s election to replace Christie.
Menendez said before entering the courthouse on Wednesday: “Not once have I dishonored my public office.”
Menendez has kept up a busy public appearance schedule while under indictment, and that didn’t change Wednesday. After court adjourned, Menendez attended a rally of about 100 people outside a federal immigration building next to the courthouse to protest Republican President Donald Trump’s decision to end deportation protection for young immigrants living in the country illegally.
“We can keep the dream alive,” he told the crowd through a megaphone. “You are not alone.”
During the government’s opening statement, Justice Department attorney Peter Koski described Menendez pressuring government officials to help Melgen with securing visas for his foreign girlfriends and intervening in a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican Republic and a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute.
Individually and through his company, Melgen also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Menendez’s legal defense fund and entities that supported his 2012 re-election, Koski said.
Many of Menendez’s meetings and interactions with the officials occurred in proximity to Melgen’s donations or trips by Menendez he paid for, Koski claimed.
“He went to bat when Dr. Melgen asked, and Dr. Melgen asked frequently,” said Koski, who discounted defense lawyers’ contentions that the trips were innocent gifts between friends. “There’s no friendship exception to bribery. There’s no friendship exception to breaking the law.”
Among the gifts prosecutors say Melgen gave Menendez were flights on Melgen’s private jet, vacations at Melgen’s private villa in the Dominican Republic frequented by celebrities like Beyonce and Jay Z, and a three-night stay at a luxury Paris hotel valued at nearly $5,000.
Lowell countered that the two men have been friends since the early 1990s and “acting out of friendship is not a crime.”
He told jurors that Menendez’s meetings with Health and Human Services officials — including former department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — regarding Medicare reimbursement policies were aimed at correcting billing inconsistencies, a concern shared by other senators.
Similarly, Menendez’s interest in port security in the Dominican Republic stemmed from a concern that potential U.S.-supplied screening equipment wouldn’t be used correctly, he said. A company Melgen owned had a long-running contract dispute with the Dominican government over port security equipment.
Lowell attempted to blunt the government’s case by displaying a chart that showed alleged bribes by Melgen in 2006 but not alleged official acts by Menendez, and alleged acts but no alleged bribes in 2009.
“A bribery case is not a mix-and-match event,” he said.
Melgen’s attorney echoed Lowell’s central contention that there was no corrupt agreement between the men as he began his opening statement at the end of the day. He will resume Thursday.
Melgen’s sentencing in a separate Medicare fraud case has been delayed until after his trial with Menendez.
Menendez said he plans to be at the trial daily but will decide whether to return to Washington to cast votes in the Senate based on the issue and whether his vote could make a difference. The judge last week ruled against an attempt by Menendez to pause the trial on days when important Senate votes were scheduled.
Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska was the last sitting U.S. senator to go on trial. His conviction was overturned after a Justice Department investigation concluded prosecutors had committed misconduct.
Democrats in New Jersey, including junior U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, have stood by Menendez. Booker was in court on Wednesday to support him.
Before court began, Menendez stood outside the courthouse, flanked by his two adult children and at times choking back tears.
“I started my public career fighting corruption — that’s how I started — and I have always acted in accordance with the law,” Menendez said.
“And I believe when all the facts are known, I will be vindicated.”
Contact Porter at https://www.twitter.com/DavidPorter_AP