Menendez on Trial: What to Watch

6 crucial factors in the senator’s corruption trial.

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

When the curtain rises Wednesday in Newark on the long-awaited public corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez, more will be at stake than the 63-year-old lawmaker’s freedom. A Menendez conviction could change the makeup of the U.S. Senate—and the fate of key Trump-administration legislation.

Menendez faces 12 corruption-related charges, including six counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. He has maintained his innocence since he was indicted more than two years ago. The trial will mark the first time in 36 years that a sitting U.S. senator faced federal bribery charges, and that too was a New Jersey Democrat, who was convicted in the infamous ABSCAM investigation.

Prosecutors allege Menendez used his position to lobby on behalf of the business interests of Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, also on trial, in exchange for improper gifts over several years, including more than $700,000 in political contributions. In turn, Menendez allegedly used his office to promote Melgen’s personal and business interests with a United States ambassador, fellow senators, a member of the president’s cabinet, and other federal officials, the indictment charges.

Menendez was a frequent flier on the physician’s private jet and a regular guest at Melgen’s resort in the Dominican Republic. Melgen also paid for a three-night stay for Menendez and his girlfriend at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Paris, where rooms go for $1,500-a-night, prosecutors charge. In return, prosecutors say, Menendez lobbied federal officials to obtain visas allowing Melgen’s girlfriends from Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine to visit him in Florida. Melgen too has denied these allegations.

Here are six things to watch in the trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks:

1. WHAT PRICE LOYALTY? All eyes are on Melgen, who was convicted in April of stealing more than $90 million in bogus Medicare payments, exposing him to up to 30 years in prison. His sentencing, originally scheduled for August in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, was postponed until after his upcoming trial with Menendez. This has fueled longtime speculation that Melgen could opt for a plea deal in which he turns on Menendez and cooperates with authorities.

2. THE TRUMP FACTOR: Republicans have a 52-48 edge in the Senate, but that fragile majority failed by one vote in July to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health law. Last Friday, U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls denied Menendez’s request that the trial be recessed on days when the Senate has important votes. “The Senator is neither being forced to withhold his vote from the Senate, nor being forced to waive his right to be present at his trial,” Walls wrote. Will Menendez opt to remain in the courtroom or rush to D.C. at crucial moments—such as a vote on the debt limit? His absence would be a boon for the Trump agenda.

3. THE CHARGES: Menendez faces six counts of bribery, three counts of honest services fraud, one count of conspiracy, one count of interstate travel to carry out bribery, and one count of making false statements on his congressional financial disclosures to conceal the alleged crimes.

In sum, Menendez is accused of improperly helping Melgen’s cargo-screening company to prosper in the Dominican Republic. Specifically, he is charged with pressuring the U.S. State Department to convince the Dominican government to honor an exclusive contract for a Melgen company to screen outbound cargo containers. Prosecutors say Menendez also stopped the Homeland Security Department from donating cargo-screening equipment to the Dominican government, which would have adversely affected Melgen’s business. Further, Menendez allegedly tried to improperly influence Medicare officials in a $9 million billing dispute.

4. THE DEFENSE: Menendez has argued his actions were protected legislative activities and that there never was a quid pro quo arrangement with Melgen. The trips to the Caribbean, he claims, amounted to two longtime friends vacationing together. The people with the power to issue visas, apply pressure on the cargo contract, stop the scanner donation or set Medicare policy were not under Menendez’s control, his lawyers argue, and nearly all of the political contributions went to entities Menendez did not control.

5. TRIPPED UP: The bribery, fraud and conspiracy charges are the most serious allegations. Should they hold up, Menendez would surely face prison time. But this is far from a slam-dunk case. Menendez has a legitimate chance at acquittal on the major charges. But even if that scenario proves true, he has a big problem with the least conspicuous of the charges — making false statements on his congressional financial disclosures to conceal the alleged crimes. That is a felony, and it will be tough to deflect. Menendez does not deny the trips; he acknowledged them after they were brought to light. He claims he didn’t disclose them because he simply had forgotten about them. Will a jury believe he forgot about two separate private jet trips to a luxury resort in the Caribbean? It could be a very hard sell.

6. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?: If the court finds Menendez guilty on any of the charges, it would not force him out of Congress. He would have to be expelled by a two-thirds majority in the Senate or step down. Both outcomes are highly unlikely. But if by either of those scenarios plays out, New Jersey’s governor gets to choose a replacement Senator to serve until the 2018 election. If Chris Christie gets to make the choice, it would certainly be a Republican. But there is virtually no chance of that happening before January 10, when Christie will step aside and a new governor will take office. That will likely to be Phil Murphy, a Democrat. Two possible Murphy picks: Representatives Donald Norcross and Frank Pallone; the latter is a personal friend of Murphy’s.

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