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Defense rests in Bob Menendez's bribery trial; senator 'confident' jury will find him not guilty

Lawyers for Sen. Bob Menendez rested the defense in his federal bribery trial Monday after the judge denied their motion for a mistrial. The defense had argued that U.S. District Judge William Walls had prevented the New Jersey Democrat's lawyers from introducing evidence of his innocence.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, center, talks to supporters while arriving at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Courthouse for his federal corruption trial, Thursday, Oct. 26 in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, center, talks to supporters while arriving at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Courthouse for his federal corruption trial, Thursday, Oct. 26 in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)Read moreJulio Cortez

NEWARK, N.J. — Attorneys for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and his co-defendant rested their defense Monday, hours after the judge denied their motion for a mistrial in the federal bribery case.

The defense's assertion that the judge had violated Menendez's constitutional right to a fair trial "removes any respect that I have for your judgment as far as making legal challenges to what I do," U.S. District Judge William H. Walls said.

Defense attorneys for Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and his co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, argued that the judge had repeatedly refused to allow them to present evidence and elicit testimony that would undercut the prosecution's bribery theory.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are set to return to court on Tuesday to argue how the judge should draft his instructions for the jury. Closing arguments in the trial, now in its ninth week, could begin as soon as Wednesday.

"Eight weeks, 50 witnesses, and hundreds of documents. I and my lawyers believe this jury will be ready to render a just verdict, and I am confident it will be not guilty," Menendez told reporters outside the courthouse in Newark after Walls excused the jury. The senator did not testify.

Menendez is accused of accepting free trips on Melgen's private jet, vacations in Paris and the Dominican Republic, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions. Prosecutors say Menendez returned the favor to his wealthy friend by lobbying federal officials to change the outcome of Melgen's $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, pressuring the State Department to protect Melgen's port-security contract with the Dominican government, and helping to obtain visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends.

Menendez covered up the scheme by omitting the gifts from his Senate financial disclosure forms, according to the government.

The senator says his advocacy was born out of a longtime friendship with Melgen, as well as a commitment to broad policy issues like health care, homeland security, and immigration.

In asking for a mistrial, defense attorneys said the judge had prevented them from showing jurors crucial evidence of that friendship. The final straw, defense attorneys said, was the judge's refusal last week to allow Menendez's lawyer to testify about a letter he sent to the Senate Ethics Committee in 2013 regarding the trips on Melgen's jet.

The defense argued the testimony would establish that the senator didn't attempt to conceal the gifts — and thus help refute the bribery charges.

The judge suggested only Menendez himself, not his lawyer, could testify on the matter.

"We feel stifled, and we feel like we're not doing a good job," Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Menendez, told the judge during oral arguments Monday.

Peter Koski, a prosecutor with the Justice Department, said the motion "grossly mischaracterizes the record in effort to generate a public narrative that they are not getting a fair trial."

Ruling from the bench, Walls told defense attorneys: "You are not entitled to try this case without rules and without allegiances to substantive law and procedural law and the rules of evidence."

Also Monday, a legal analyst working for the defense took the stand as the last witness. Gabriel Klausner testified that Menendez had flown to the Dominican Republic at his own expense on several occasions between 1998 and 2012.

A prosecutor pointed out during cross-examination that Menendez only began using Melgen's private jet after he became a senator in 2006. A grand jury charged that the alleged criminal conspiracy began that year and ended in 2013.

Klausner, referring to records he said he had reviewed, also told jurors that it was common for Melgen to make political donations through the doctor's ophthalmology practice, Vitreo Retinal Consultants.

Prosecutors say Melgen made $600,000 in donations to a Menendez-allied super PAC through his practice in an effort to conceal the source of the money. Using the business meant that the doctor's name didn't show up on campaign-finance reports.

The defense has argued that the contributions were legal and that anyone could determine the business' owner through a simple internet search.