NEWARK, N.J. — A jury began deliberating in the federal corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez Monday afternoon after his attorney made closing arguments and the prosecution spoke in rebuttal.
Menendez's longtime friendship with a wealthy Florida eye doctor fatally undermines the prosecution's contention that the senator corruptly sold his office for a lifestyle he couldn't afford, defense attorney Abbe Lowell said in federal court.
"Real friends do not offer their hospitality as bribes," Lowell told jurors during his nearly three-hour summation. "And real friends help when they can, and not because they need to be bribed."
Prosecutors say Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, accepted free trips on Salomon Melgen's private jet, vacations at his villa in the Dominican Republic, and other gifts. In exchange, Menendez is accused of performing official acts to advance the doctor's financial and personal interests.
There is no evidence the men entered a corrupt agreement, Lowell said, and plenty of evidence that suggests otherwise. For example, he noted, Menendez frequently paid his own way to visit the doctor in the Dominican Republic and gave a $1,000 wedding gift to Melgen's daughter.
"This is what real friendship looks like," Lowell said, showing jurors photos of the men smiling and spending time together at Melgen's home.
In his rebuttal, prosecutor Peter Koski said friendship and bribery were not mutually exclusive.
"The issue in this case is not whether Sen. Menendez and Dr. Melgen were friends," Koski said. "The issue in this case is whether they committed a crime together."
Menendez is accused of lobbying federal officials to try to change the outcome of Melgen's $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare; to resolve a dispute between Melgen and the Dominican government over the doctor's contract to provide cargo screening services for a port; and to help obtain visas for the doctor's foreign girlfriends.
But Lowell argued that Menendez's actions were born out of his friendship with Melgen and longtime advocacy on issues such as health-care reform, homeland security, and immigration. By advocating changes to Medicare policy, Menendez was trying to save millions of taxpayer dollars. And by pushing for strong port security in the Dominican Republic, the senator was "making sure that drugs and contraband and destructive devices don't come into the ports of New Jersey," Lowell said.
"That's being a very good senator for the state of New Jersey," he said.
The government's case also is logically inconsistent, he said. For example, the government alleges that the senator stopped helping Melgen with his Medicare dispute only when the news media began scrutinizing their relationship.
But just as the media began reporting on Menendez's free trips in late 2012, Lowell noted, Menendez and Melgen were in Florida together, playing golf. A couple days later, the government alleges, Menendez took steps to protect Melgen's port-security contract.
And although Menendez didn't report Melgen's gifts on his financial disclosure forms, Lowell argued there was no evidence that those omissions were driven by corrupt intent.
"Sen. Menendez should have been more careful," the attorney said, but "being sloppy or working too fast" doesn't make his actions illegal.
Koski said the omissions were evidence of the senator's consciousness of guilt.
"Sen. Menendez would have you believe he mastered the details of complex policy … but when it came to ethics and these financial disclosure forms, he was overwhelmed with confusion," he said.