NEWARK, N.J. – A federal judge on Thursday ripped prosecutors in their corruption case against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, warning them not to pursue a lurid line of inquiry in reviewing evidence of the luxury trips they say he accepted as bribes to influence his actions in Washington.
"It's not going to be a tabloid trial," U.S. District Judge William H. Walls said after temporarily excusing the jury. "I'm not just going to let you swish and swash nonsensical scenarios that really don't even make for a good pulp fiction story."
The tone the judge set for the trial could bode well for Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, because prosecutors have argued that the sumptuous gifts Menendez received from a Florida eye doctor prove the defendants' corrupt intent.
Also Thursday, an attorney for ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen used his opening statement to show photos of his client and Menendez spending time together at the doctor's house in the Dominican Republic. Menendez has visited Melgen's house in Casa de Campo 25 times since 1998, well before the alleged bribery conspiracy began in 2006, attorney Kirk Ogrosky said.
"There it is, there's the microwave and the toaster," Ogrosky said as he showed photos to jurors and described the men's friendship. "This is a family home. See the pictures? This isn't a resort. Here's the kids' room. Here's the back deck with the table."
The defense attorney also described the government's case as an "attack" on Hispanic Americans.
Prosecutors on Thursday called an FBI analyst who worked on the case as their first witness, and walked her through emails documenting Menendez's preparation for a three-night stay at the Hyatt hotel in Paris in April 2010. Melgen paid for the senator's $1,500-a-night hotel room using his American Express points. Why he did so – and whether the senator intended to repay him – is in dispute.
Emails introduced by the government show that after first asking his staff to book a different room with his own credit card, Menendez instructed Melgen to pay using the doctor's points. In his email to Melgen, Menendez wrote that the room he wanted included a "limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower." Defense attorneys say the senator simply copied that information from the hotel's website and had not demanded those amenities.
At one point during the government's extended examination of the various hotel rooms and corresponding rates Menendez had explored in planning the trip, the judge dismissed jurors and criticized prosecutors as wasting time on what he described as irrelevant evidence.
"Whether these defendants engaged in bribery does not depend upon whether the senator chose a more expensive room," Walls said after the jury filed out of the room. "We're not talking about Days Inn. We're talking about very upscale lodging in Paris."
He admonished prosecutors for inferring, without additional evidence, that Menendez could not afford to pay for the hotel himself, and took umbrage at the government's insinuation that the senator allegedly sought a bribe from Melgen so that he could sleep with a woman who was also staying at the hotel.
"I laugh," Walls told J.P. Cooney, a deputy chief in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, laughing. "It's ridiculous what you're asserting."
The prosecutor told the judge he had not intended to make that suggestion to jurors.
Under cross-examination by Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell, the FBI analyst, Jane Ruch, conceded that the senator had bought his flight to Paris.
Walls said Menendez's motive for traveling to Paris was immaterial to the case – namely, the government's burden to prove bribery beyond a reasonable doubt. "Even if you were writing a novel, your editor would strike it," Walls said to Cooney.
Prosecutors say Melgen bribed Menendez with scores of trips on his private jet, vacations at exclusive Dominican resorts and the high-end Paris hotel, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Although the senator didn't pay for the trips at the time – or report them on his financial-disclosure forms – he did aid Melgen in another way, prosecutors say: by using the power of his office to help the doctor's foreign girlfriends obtain visas and pressuring high-level government officials to change policies ranging from Medicare reimbursement to Dominican port security that would advance the doctor's financial interests.
Ogrosky said that Melgen, 63, offered flights out of an ethos of hospitality rooted in Dominican culture, and that Menendez often paid his own way to visit the doctor at his villa there during the same period he accepted the free trips the government characterizes as bribes.
The attorney said Melgen contributed money to Menendez's campaigns simply because he wanted him to win – not because he had corrupt intent. Ogrosky said Melgen donated to other candidates, especially those who advanced causes important to Hispanic Americans.
Menendez, 63, is charged with bribery, honest services fraud, conspiracy, and related charges. He says that he has done nothing wrong and that any actions he took on Melgen's behalf were born out of friendship and legitimate policy positions.