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Prosecutors: Sen. Menendez 'Sold His Office' for Ritzy Trips

Bob Menendez, D- N.J., and a Florida eye doctor that starts Wednesday in Newark and promises to put the very business of governing under a microscope.
Image: Menendez trial
Prosecutor Peter Koski delivers the government's opening statement.Art Lien
/ Source: The Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., "sold his office for a lifestyle he couldn't afford," federal prosecutors said Wednesday in its opening statement in the Democrat's corruption trial.

Justice Department attorney Peter Koski said Menendez later lied about the trips from a wealthy Florida doctor seeking political influence on Senate disclosure forms.

Menendez is charged along with Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen with multiple fraud and bribery charges. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Koski described Menendez pressuring government officials to help Melgen with securing visas for his foreign girlfriends, a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican Republic and a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute.

Defense attorneys were scheduled to give their opening statements later Wednesday. Opening statements were delayed to allow for the selection of more jurors, while the judge and defense butted heads from the start.

Image: Menendez trial
Prosecutor Peter Koski delivers the government's opening statement.Art Lien

An attorney for the New Jersey Democrat accused the judge Wednesday of disparaging Menendez in his opinion denying Menendez's motion to postpone the trial on days of important Senate votes.

U.S. District Judge William Walls continually interrupted to deny the allegation.

Walls also chided defense attorneys for filing a motion on what to include in jury instructions at the end of the trial.

When attorney Abbe Lowell pointed out that the motion was filed according to the judge's order from last December, Walls replied, "Fine. Bill me."

Menendez told reporters, "Not once have I dishonored my public office," before he entered a courthouse for the start of a trial that could threaten his political career and potentially the makeup of a deeply divided U.S. Senate if he's convicted.

Flanked by his two adult children and at times choking back tears, the New Jersey Democrat said, "I started my public career fighting corruption — that's how I started — and I have always acted in accordance with the law.

"And I believe when all the facts are known, I will be vindicated," Menendez said.

Menendez and Melgen are charged with a conspiracy in which, prosecutors say, Menendez lobbied for Melgen's business interests in exchange for political donations and gifts that included luxury vacations, flights on Melgen's plane and stays at his private villa in an exclusive Dominican Republic resort frequented by celebrities including Beyonce and Jay Z.

The indictment also alleges Menendez pressured State Department officials to give visas to three young women described as Melgen's girlfriends.

Related: Sen. Robert Menendez Bribery Trial Could Reshape Senate, Trump’s Agenda

Defense lawyers say that the trips described as bribes were examples of friends' vacationing together, that most of Melgen's contributions went to committees Menendez didn't control and that he didn't control the people he lobbied on Melgen's behalf.

Menendez is up for re-election next year. If he is convicted and steps down or is forced out of the Senate by a two-thirds majority vote before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the governor, a Republican, would pick a successor. A Democrat has a large polling and financial advantage in November's election to replace Christie.

"I appreciate all of my supporters who have stood by me as I try to clear my name," Menendez said. "I am thankful for the countless New Jerseyans who have either called me or called my office to say that they have my back as I've had theirs."

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.

Sen. Cory Booker was in court to support Menendez and chatted with him during a break in the court proceedings Wednesday. Booker and fellow Democrats from New Jersey and beyond have stood by Menendez.

Booker's support comes as the Republican National Committee launches an online campaign seeking to pressure Democratic senators to vote Menendez out of office if he's convicted.

Booker's political action committee donated $10,000 to Menendez's legal defense fund in 2015. The fund has raised more than $3.2 million since he was indicted in April 2015.

The Republican National Committee has already launched an online campaign seeking to pressure Menendez's Democratic colleagues to vote him out of office if he's convicted. An ad points to Democrats calling for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens to resign immediately after he was convicted of corruption in 2008."Why would it be any different now?" the ad asks.

Image: Senator Bob Menendez arrives to face trial for federal corruption charges with his children Alicia Menendez and Robert Melendez Jr. at United States District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark
Sen. Bob Menendez arrives to face trial for federal corruption charges with his children in Newark, New Jersey, on Sept. 6.Joe Penney / Reuters

Stevens 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.

The RNC also paid for a Snapchat filter that can be used by people near the courthouse that reads "Bye Bye Bob Menendez!" and includes a picture of a plane and a cartoon version of the senator surrounded by bags of money.

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 and a three-night stay at a luxury Paris hotel valued at nearly $5,000.

Melgen also directed more than $750,000 in campaign contributions to entities that supported Menendez, according to the indictment, which alleges they were inducements to get Menendez to use his influence on Melgen's behalf.

Prosecutors say that lobbying included a three-year effort to help Melgen avoid paying $8.9 million for overbilling Medicare, a meeting with an assistant secretary of state to help Melgen in a contract dispute over port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic, and helping one of Melgen's girlfriends and her sister get into the country after their visas were denied.

Melgen's sentencing in a separate Medicare fraud case has been delayed until after his trial with Menendez.

Jurors will have to wade through complex legal concepts, including whether Menendez's interactions with executive branch officials were "official acts" as defined under federal bribery statutes. That will depend on how a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision reversing the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, is interpreted.

"This is not a black-and-white area of the law even for people who do this on a regular basis," said Mala Ahuja Harker, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey now working in private practice. "I think people's gut sense of fairness is going to come into play: Does this offend their sense of the way politics is supposed to operate?"

Menendez has hardly been a shrinking violet since his April 2015 indictment, and he has made a steady stream of public appearances to tout his legislative priorities and harshly criticize many of President Donald Trump's policies, including Tuesday's announcement that he will wind down a program protecting young immigrants from deportation.

Menendez has also remained a leading voice against improved relations with Cuba and praised Trump's rollback of President Barack Obama's plan to re-establish diplomatic relations.

The indictment also hasn't stopped Menendez from receiving financial support. He has raised more than $6 million since his indictment, between his legal defense fund and campaign, according to a review of federal filings.

CORRECTION (Sept. 6, 2017, 5:35 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the party affiliation of Menendez. He is a Democrat, not a Republican.