ELISE HU, HOST:
A federal corruption trial against a sitting U.S. senator has ended in a mistrial.
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ROBERT MENENDEZ: To those who were digging my political graves so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are. And I won't forget you.
HU: That's New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez in front of a courthouse today in Newark. Joe Hernandez of our member station WHYY has been covering this trial and joins us now from Newark. Joe, welcome.
JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Elise.
HU: So prosecutors went into this trial saying they had a strong case. So how did it wind up going this way and winding up as a mistrial?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, well, we expect to hear more about that in the coming hours and days, but there were questions about this case from the start. One of them was - and perhaps this was the largest question - did Menendez and his friend and co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, truly have a bribery arrangement together? Did they conspire to bribe each other? Defense attorneys said from the start that there was no smoking gun showing that.
And another big question in the case was, did what Menendez did for his friend - the alleged favors in the case - did they really rise to the level of an official act? And that would have to be the one side of a bribery scheme of a public official. That definition of bribery was narrowed a bit by the Supreme Court last year. So those questions were likely in the jurors' minds.
HU: Tell us a little bit more about what they were accused of.
HERNANDEZ: They were accused of a seven-year bribery scheme in which they exchanged free flights and lavish trips for political favors essentially. So Melgen gave Menendez free flights on his private jet. He's a wealthy eye doctor. He paid for hotel rooms for Menendez in Paris and in the Dominican Republic. And he gave political contributions that would have benefited Menendez.
And prosecutors said in return for that, Menendez did Melgen favors. He helped get visas for some of Melgen's girlfriends. He helped Melgen try to sort out a Medicare billing dispute, $8.9 million, with his eye doctor practice. And he tried to sort out a contract dispute in the Dominican Republic. Menendez was also charged with leaving those gifts off of his Senate financial disclosure forms.
HU: What about the defense team? How did it make its case?
HERNANDEZ: Well, interestingly, a lot of the facts in the case were not disputed by the defense, and they agreed with the prosecution. These gifts were given. There's no doubt about that. And Menendez did many of the things that he was accused of that were called favors, but he said that he did them legitimately in his bona fide role as a senator. What the defense said was there was no connective tissue between those two things. There was no agreement between these two men to trade this for that, to trade gifts for favors. And they attacked the prosecution over and over about this saying, there's no smoking gun. There's no evidence of an agreement, no emails saying, do this for me and I'll do this for you. And so they say that alone doesn't prove that there's bribery.
HU: So now what? Where does the end of this trial leave Bob Menendez?
HERNANDEZ: Well, Bob Menendez was definitely happy today. I mean, he was very emotional. He broke down in tears a little bit when he spoke to reporters outside of court. He was celebratory. But this chapter in his life is not going to be over yet. I mean, first of all, this was a mistrial. This was not an acquittal. The jury couldn't agree on whether he was guilty or not guilty. And so the government, the Justice Department, which brought these charges, could retry the case if they wanted to. So far they've just thanked the jury but have been tight-lipped about their plans for the future.
Also, there's a Senate investigation now apparently into Menendez. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said today that although this mistrial occurred, the Senate would look into the serious charges leveled against him. Menendez appears to intend to stay in politics in the future, and he'll have to run for re-election next year if he wants to keep his seat.
HU: That's Joe Hernandez of member station WHYY. Joe, thanks.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
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