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Testimony: Bob Menendez advocated for business interests of donor

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez advocated for the business interests of a campaign donor, according to evidence and witness testimony in his federal corruption trial Thursday.

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, right, and his son Robert Jr., enter a Newark, N.J. federal court on the first day of trial in his federal corruption case on September 5, 2017. (Louis Lanzano/Sipa USA/TNS)
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, right, and his son Robert Jr., enter a Newark, N.J. federal court on the first day of trial in his federal corruption case on September 5, 2017. (Louis Lanzano/Sipa USA/TNS)Read moreLouis Lanzano

NEWARK – Just days after a donor to U.S. Sen Robert Menendez agreed to contribute tens of thousands of dollars, the senator lobbied an assistant secretary of state in an effort to advance the donor's financial interests in the Dominican Republic, according to evidence and witness testimony Thursday.

Prosecutors sought to show jurors in federal court here that $60,000 given by Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen and his family in May 2012 to the New Jersey Democratic Party and a legal defense fund for Menendez on an election matter were bribes.

They also tried to tie a golf outing paid for by Melgen in West Palm Beach to Menendez's advocacy on the doctor's behalf. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Melgen are charged with conspiracy, bribery, honest services fraud, and related charges. The two men say they are longtime friends and that there was nothing improper about the donations and other gifts, such as free trips on Melgen's private jet. The trial is in its fourth week.

Menendez's chief of staff reached out to Melgen's son-in-law on April 30, 2012, to request the contributions, according to emails and an FBI agent's testimony Thursday. The chief of staff, Daniel O'Brien, spoke with Melgen by phone about the matter shortly thereafter, jurors heard – the same day a Menendez staffer arranged a meeting with an assistant secretary of state.

A few days later, Melgen and his family wrote the checks, according to the indictment.

That same day, May 16, 2012, Menendez met with an assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, according to emails read to jurors. Menendez wanted the assistant secretary, William R. Brownfield, to pressure the Dominican Republic to honor a contract with a port-security company Melgen owned, prosecutors say.

Menendez, who sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, threatened to hold a hearing on the matter, according to emails read to jurors.

Prosecutors also introduced records showing that a day after Melgen paid for a golf outing in West Palm Beach with his son-in-law and Menendez, the senator's staff contacted a Department of Homeland Security official to ask whether the U.S. government planned to donate cargo-screening equipment to the Dominican Republic.

Melgen feared that such gifts would infringe on his contract with the Dominican government, a State Department official testified Thursday.

Defense attorneys suggested to jurors that Menendez was interested in port security because he was concerned that narcotics were being smuggled into the U.S. via Dominican ports.

On Jan. 11, 2013 – a day after the Florida golf outing — a Menendez staffer wrote to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol saying the senator feared that the screening equipment would "be used for an ulterior purpose and asked that you please consider holding off on the delivery of such equipment until you can discuss the matter with us."

Stephanie Talton, an official with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, testified that she found "the request to be somewhat odd, because it's somewhat unusual to have a senator or a member of Congress to ask us to stop doing our law enforcement mission."

As it turns out, Talton testified, the agency did not have plans to donate cargo-scanning equipment. Once she relayed that to Menendez's staff, the senator dropped the issue, she said.

Raymond Brown, an attorney for Menendez, said during cross-examination that there was nothing unusual about a senator exercising his oversight duties over U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to make sure the agency was complying with the law.

After court adjourned at 2:30 p.m., Menendez headed to Newark International Airport for a flight to Puerto Rico, where he planned to survey the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria.

Menendez had initially arranged for the military to fly him and nearly a dozen other members of Congress, but he told reporters the White House had scrapped that plan.

His staff was informed that the Trump administration had issued a "blanket hold on flights except for support needs."

A spokesman said Menendez would be taking "a commercial humanitarian flight."