NEWARK, N.J. – U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez used the power of his office to advance the "financial interests and personal whims" of a wealthy Florida eye doctor who bribed the senator with access to a lifestyle that read "like a travel brochure for the rich and famous," a prosecutor said Wednesday in federal court.
"This case is about a corrupt politician who sold his Senate office for a life of luxury he couldn't afford, and a greedy doctor who put that politician on his payroll for whenever he needed the services of a United States senator," Peter Koski, deputy chief of the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, said in his opening statement at Menendez's corruption trial.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, faces a dozen charges related to the bribery scheme. Prosecutors accuse him of soliciting and accepting free trips on ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen's private jet to luxurious resorts in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to help his 2012 reelection campaign, and other lavish gifts.
In exchange for Melgen's largesse, prosecutors say, Menendez did his bidding in Washington: helping obtain visas for the doctor's foreign girlfriends, pressuring an assistant secretary of state to protect Melgen's port security contract in the Dominican Republic, and lobbying fellow senators and the highest-ranking health policy officials in the Obama administration to try to sway a Medicare billing dispute in the doctor's favor.
Menendez tried to cover up the crimes by purposefully omitting the gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms, Koski said.
Since he was indicted in 2015, Menendez, 63, has maintained that his friendship with Melgen motivated his actions — not bribery.
"I have committed my entire adult life, since I was 19, to fighting for the people of New Jersey," Menendez said before entering the courthouse. "Never — not once, not once — have I dishonored my public office." When all the facts are known, Menendez said, he will be "vindicated."
Inside the courtroom, Menendez's attorney Abbe Lowell described the "official acts" the government says the senator performed on Melgen's behalf as proper congressional oversight of the executive branch.
And Lowell said that on each of the issues where the government alleges corruption — such as immigration proceedings, homeland security, and health care — Menendez has strong and long-standing policy convictions.
As if to underscore that point, a couple of hours after court recessed for the day, the senator was to participate in a rally adjacent to the courthouse protesting President Trump's decision to revoke protections for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. Menendez, the son of Cuban emigres, has often advocated for immigrants.
The trial is being closely watched in Washington and elsewhere, both for how it could influence legislative action in a closely divided Senate and the regulation of money in politics.
Menendez was supported by his fellow U.S. senator from New Jersey, Democrat Cory A. Booker, who sat behind the defense table during opening arguments. During a break, the two embraced and chatted in the hallway.
Melgen, 63, who is also charged in the case, was convicted of defrauding Medicare and other charges in April by a federal jury in Florida. His sentencing in that case has been delayed.
Lowell, Menendez's attorney, told jurors that friendship was the "true nature" of the senator's relationship with Melgen — not corruption.
"Sen. Menendez believed that every action he took … was proper on the facts he heard, on the law and policy that was involved," Lowell said, adding that these actions "were recommended to him by experienced staff, including lawyers."
Defense attorneys said the two met in 1992 – 14 years before prosecutors say the bribery scheme began.
Before the alleged conspiracy, Lowell said, Melgen contributed to the senator's campaigns, Menendez took trips on the doctor's jet, and the two exchanged gifts. None of those actions or gifts are alleged to be bribes, Lowell noted.
They celebrated birthdays and holidays together and referred to each other as brothers. Their children referred to Menendez and Melgen as uncles, Lowell said.
Menendez paid for his own travel to the Dominican Republic more than a dozen times during the period in which prosecutors say the senator was taking bribes, Lowell said, suggesting the government's corruption theory didn't add up.
And attorneys for both Menendez and Melgen said neither profited from the gifts or from Menendez's actions in the Senate.
"No cash, no jewels, no cars, no loans, nothing more," Lowell said.
"Nothing the senator ever did for my client resulted in him getting money," Kirk Ogrosky, Melgen's attorney, told jurors.
"Zero. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Not one dime," he said.
Menendez didn't report the flights and stays at Melgen's Dominican villa that were gifts, Lowell suggested, because the law's reporting requirements weren't clear.
In fact, Lowell said, the Senate Ethics Committee provides a "friendship exception" that allows senators to receive unlimited gifts from friends.
Koski, the prosecutor, told jurors that they could believe Menendez and Melgen were friends and still find them guilty of bribery. "Friends can commit crimes together," he said. "Friends can bribe each other."
One bribe, Koski said, came in the form of two $300,000 contributions Melgen made through his company to a super PAC that the doctor specifically earmarked for Menendez's 2012 reelection campaign.
Six days after the doctor wrote one of the checks, Menendez met with the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and urged her to change Medicare's reimbursement policy in Melgen's favor, prosecutors say.
The timing between the political donation and meeting was no coincidence, Koski said.
Lowell framed it another way: by the time Menendez met with the head of CMS, Melgen had already repaid the government the $8.9 million it said he owed.
The meeting covered several subjects, such as the Affordable Care Act, as well as the Obama administration's reimbursement policy, Lowell said.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William H. Walls clashed with Menendez's attorneys. Lowell complained that the judge had ordered him to submit proposed jury instructions before trial, only to inform the defense that he wouldn't instruct the jury until the two sides had presented their cases.