NEWARK, N.J. – Sen. Bob Menendez said Tuesday that he expects to be exonerated of federal bribery charges, as lawyers began picking the jurors who will decide his fate in a trial set to begin next month.
"Looking forward to picking a good jury," the New Jersey Democrat told reporters as he arrived at the federal courthouse here, flanked by his lawyers.
His arrival just before 9:30 a.m. set off a day in which U.S. District Judge William H. Walls, prosecutors, and Menendez's defense team worked to winnow the pool of about 200 prospective jurors to the 12 men and women and four alternates who will hear the case.
Whatever verdict the panel reaches – after a trial expected to last one to two months — has the potential to reverberate far beyond the courtroom. Should Menendez be convicted, it almost certainly would mean the end of his four-decade political career in New Jersey and could dramatically shift the makeup of the Senate.
Walls already had dismissed about 100 prospective jurors based on questionnaires they filled out at a hearing in June. As Tuesday's proceedings got underway, he began by questioning those remaining on their news consumption and television viewing habits.
Only a handful said they were periodic consumers of news, with one woman telling the judge she mostly watches courtroom reality programs like the syndicated daytime TV show Judge Mathis.
"You're in the real show now," Walls quipped back. The woman later was cut from the jury pool.
Other prospective jurors appeared antsy at the prospect of committing themselves to a trial that is likely to stretch into the fall. At one point Tuesday afternoon, the lawyers thought they had seated the full panel of 12, but after the judge adjourned court for the day two women who had been selected suddenly reported conflicts that they had failed to mention — annoying Walls, who could be heard raising his voice during a hushed sidebar conference.
The women ultimately were dismissed, but when another prospective juror — a seventh-grade teacher — later was caught texting in the courtroom that she might be on the Menendez jury, just minutes after the judge had instructed the panel not to discuss the case, the judge lost his cool and upbraided her for failing to follow instructions.
"You won't be any good as a juror," he said. "And I think you might not be any good as a teacher."
Throughout, Menendez and his co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, sat quietly at the defense tables, showing little reaction as their lawyers went about their work.
Prosecutors allege that in exchange for that largesse, Menendez extended his clout in Washington to benefit the doctor's business interests, including pressure the senator allegedly placed on federal officials to adopt a policy that would help Melgen fight a $9 million Medicare overbilling dispute with the government.
Menendez also urged the Obama administration to take steps that would tilt a business dispute in the Dominican Republic in Melgen's favor and tried to help the doctor secure visas for overseas girlfriends.
Both Menendez and Melgen maintain that their friendship was a true meeting of like minds and not a bribery situation. The senator has described Melgen as a genuine friend and maintained that the gifts were just signs of their lengthy relationship. He contends that any action he may have taken that benefited Melgen was a coincidence and was motivated by his own deeply held policy views.
Melgen was separately convicted in April by a federal jury in Florida of defrauding Medicare of more than $90 million.