Jury Begins Deliberation In Sen. Menendez Corruption Trial
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The fate of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez is now in the hands of a jury. Closing arguments have wrapped up in the federal corruption trial of the New Jersey Democrat. Menendez is accused of using his office to do favors for a wealthy friend in exchange for gifts, vacations and political contributions. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY has been covering this trial for more than two months, and he joins us now from Newark, N.J. And, Joe, first, broadly speaking, what's the case federal prosecutors had made against Menendez?
JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Well, they're saying Menendez was one part of a seven-year bribery scheme. On the one side of the scheme was Menendez, a high-ranking Democrat, a former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And on the other side was a guy named Dr. Salomon Melgen. He's a wealthy eye doctor from Florida and a close friend of Menendez as also a business owner.
Prosecutors say, like you said, Robert, that Melgen gave Menendez free flights on his private jet, free trips to Paris, to the Dominican Republic and handsome campaign contributions in exchange for Menendez's help at high levels of the government - help getting visas for Melgen's girlfriends, help sorting out a Medicare billing dispute at his ophthalmology practice, and help with a contract dispute in the Dominican Republic.
SIEGEL: And what have lawyers for Menendez and his friend Dr. Melgen said in their defense?
HERNANDEZ: Well, they've said there's no smoking gun in the case, that there's no evidence or testimony that there's a corrupt agreement. I mean, we hear the term quid pro quo a lot in this case, and the quids and the quos are basically agreed upon that there were gifts because they were friends and there were times when Menendez brought up issues in his role as a senator. But there's no pro. There's no agreement between these two men that was criminal.
SIEGEL: Now, there's another case looming over this one, and this is the bribery case of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. He was convicted, and then his conviction was overturned. And the Supreme Court ruled in that case. Explain the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling over the trial of Senator Menendez.
HERNANDEZ: Well, the Supreme Court did overturn McDonnell's conviction. And he had been convicted of taking bribes from a donor in exchange for promoting this donor's dietary supplement. And the Supreme Court said that what McDonnell did for this donor did not rise to the level of official act. In an opinion, they said that for a politician to just make calls or set up meetings without doing more than that does not necessarily rise to the level of an official act.
And so defense attorneys for Menendez asked that this case be thrown out on those grounds. But Judge William Walls is letting it proceed. He said what Menendez did could qualify and he would leave that up to the jury.
SIEGEL: And did he address that issue in his instruction to the jury?
HERNANDEZ: He did. And actually, he quoted in some way parts of the actual opinion from the Supreme Court.
SIEGEL: Now, Bob Menendez is a Democrat in a very closely divided Senate. Let's say he's convicted. Does he remain in the Senate? What happens?
HERNANDEZ: Well, that could be up to him in some ways. The Senate would have to vote by a two-thirds majority to expel him from the Senate. So that would require a few Democrats, which is not a sure thing. If he were convicted and did step down, Governor Chris Christie would get to pick his successor. And so Christie is Republican. Menendez is a Democrat. So it's possible that Menendez would try to hold on to his seat a bit if he were convicted.
And what he would be waiting for is a new administration because New Jersey is one of two states electing new governors this year. That election happens to be tomorrow. And the Democrat is heavily favored to win. So if he were convicted and held on until January, it could be a Democrat who picks his replacement.
SIEGEL: And again, that's just a hypothetical. The jury has just gotten the case, and we don't know what the verdict is. Joe, thanks for talking with us.
HERNANDEZ: Thanks a lot, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's Joe Hernandez of member station WHYY. He's been covering the trial of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey.