Over two years after his indictment on federal bribery and corruption charges, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) goes on trial this week in a New Jersey federal court, as prosecutors charge that the veteran Democratic lawmaker engaged in a scheme in which Menendez received “lavish vacations” in exchange for the Senator using the power of his office to advocate for the business interests of a Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen.
In court documents submitted last week before the trial of both men, the feds said the "bribery scheme began shortly after Menendez's elevation to the Senate in 2006, when Melgen began a pattern of treating Menendez to weekend and week-long getaways in the Dominican Republic that would continue for the next several years."
Prosecutors charge that Menendez wrongly accepted gifts from Melgen, didn’t pay for expensive travel and accommodations, but instead used the “currency of his Senate office to take official action to benefit the South Florida doctor.”
The indictment details various trips that were provided to the New Jersey Democrat, as Melgen treated the Senator to “weekend and week-long getaways in the Dominican Republic,” and more.
“Menendez enjoyed these flights and vacations free of charge,” the feds told the court last week. “But, in a scheme to hide the trips from public view and keep the corrupt pact secret, Menendez mentioned nothing of the gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms.”
The indictment also alleges that Menendez also helped Melgen deal with billing disputes involving Medicare, and when Melgen was trying to get a cargo screening contract in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez has maintained that this was a friendship, and as such, did not rise to anything involving bribery or corruption.
After the indictments were announced in 2015, Menendez vowed to fight the charges, saying he had been under a “Justice Department cloud” for several years.
In the halls of Congress, Menendez has said very little about his trial, carrying on with his regular business in the Senate.
Behind the scenes, lawyers for Menendez have been doing all they can to keep this trial from overtaking his day job.
One effort was to alter the schedule of the trial, to allow Menendez to get back to the Senate when needed for important votes – but the judge overseeing the case rejected that legal move late last week.
The court did set a trial schedule for Monday through Thursday between 9:30 am and 2:30 pm – that could allow Menendez to rush back to Capitol Hill for any important evening votes.
It would also leave his Fridays open for any business – but in recent years, the Senate has rarely conducted any roll call votes on that day, instead letting Senators use that for home-state business.
For obvious reasons, there is a major political overtone for this trial, as Republicans made clear in recent days that they want to try to get as much attention on the trial as possible – especially since a guilty verdict could well see Menendez bounced out of the Senate.
And if that were to happen – then a Republican Governor, Chris Christie – would have the opportunity to choose a replacement for Menendez.
On Friday, GOP media bookers were already touting the issue for reporters and radio shows, promising to get guests on the air who would talk about the Menendez story.
Bribery. Conspiracy. Wire fraud. Violations of the Travel Act. Making false statements. Menendez faces some very serious charges, as his fellow Democrats wonder whether he will survive this legal battle.