NEWARK, N.J. — The government rested its bribery case against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy friend on Wednesday, leaving it up to a judge to decide whether a 2016 Supreme Court ruling that already has helped reverse several politicians’ corruption convictions is enough to dismiss the charges here.
The New Jersey Democrat is charged with accepting free flights on a private jet and other gifts from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend, in exchange for pressuring government officials to take actions favorable to Melgen’s business interests.
The defendants argued in court filings over the summer that the charges should be dropped because they didn’t meet a narrower definition of bribery under a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reversed the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.
U.S. District Judge William Walls said at the time he would wait until the government presented its case before ruling. The trial is in its sixth week. If Walls rules the case can go forward, the defense is expected to take the rest of the month to present its case.
The McDonnell decision has been the 800-pound gorilla in the room during the trial. Walls acknowledged as much last week during a discussion with attorneys with the jury out of the room.
He noted that some prosecution witnesses had testified that although they may have believed Menendez set up meetings with them to help out Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a stalled port security contract, Menendez didn’t mentioned Melgen’s name during the meetings.
“I am very careful because of you know what, and that being McDonnell,” Walls said.
Before the McDonnell ruling, public officials accused of bribery were considered to have taken an official act if the act was “among the official duties or among the settled customary duties or practices of the official charged with bribery.” That language came from a 1914 case involving the commissioner of Indian Affairs.
The Supreme Court narrowed that, in McDonnell, to define an official act as a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy’” that must involve “a formal exercise of governmental power, and must also be something specific and focused that is pending or may by law be brought before a public official.” Setting up a meeting, talking to another official or organizing an event by oneself aren’t official acts, the court ruled.
Prosecutors have presented evidence that Menendez set up the meetings with Department of Homeland Security officials and Health officials during a time Melgen was donating several hundred thousand dollars to a campaign organization that supported Menendez and was flying Menendez on his private jet to his villa in the Dominican Republic.
Defense attorneys have argued that Menendez used the meetings and other interactions with executive branch officials to discuss Medicare and port security policy issues and that even if he “encouraged others to take a particular action,” those can’t be considered official acts under McDonnell.
In recent months, the McDonnell ruling was cited by courts that tossed the convictions of former New York state lawmakers Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and Dean Skelos, a Republican, as well as former Democratic Louisiana congressman William Jefferson.