NEWARK, N.J. — The bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez focused again Tuesday on a meeting he had in 2012 with a State Department official that is a key component of the indictment against the New Jersey Democrat and a wealthy friend.
Prosecutors have framed the meeting as an attempt by Menendez to lobby the official to resolve a contract for port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic that involved a company owned by the friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. Defense attorneys have characterized it as part of Menendez’s ongoing interest in port security in the region.
William Brownfield, a former assistant Secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement, gave both sides something to hang their hats on.
On Monday, he testified that even though one of his staffers characterized Menendez as “threatening” him with a public hearing during a May 2012 meeting, he didn’t feel threatened and that the word may not have been an accurate description. But on Tuesday, prosecutors produced an email written a month after the meeting in which Brownfield referred to the issue as one “about which Sen. Menendez threatened to call me to testify.”
Menendez and Melgen, who are longtime friends, are facing an 18-count indictment — Menendez faces 12 counts and Melgen faces 11 — that includes charges of bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud. Melgen stood to make $100 million if his company’s contract to provide X-ray screening equipment to the Dominican Republic went through, prosecutors have alleged.
Brownfield conceded on cross-examination Tuesday that Menendez was indeed pushing for a resolution to the contract dispute, but said that wasn’t the sole issue.
“That wasn’t the only thing that was on the table,” he said. “My interpretation was he was urging focus on two things, port security in the Dominican Republic and resolution of this particular contract issue as well.”
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell sought to connect the two issues for the jury — that the successful resolution of the contract would have improved port security in a region known for the illegal narcotics trade — but U.S. District Judge William Walls didn’t allow him to explore that line of questioning.
The trial is in its eighth week, and the defense is expected to wrap up its case by next week. That will be followed by what is expected to be a bruising battle over how Walls is to instruct the jury on the law before deliberations begin.
Last week, Walls denied a defense request to dismiss the case based on a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of official bribery. The Supreme Court ruling overturned the corruption conviction of Republican former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell — and, in recent months, three other politicians — because of improper jury instructions.