NEWARK, N.J. — When U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez told CNN in January 2013 that it took him more than two years to repay a wealthy friend nearly $60,000 for free trips on a private jet, he said the matter had simply fallen "through the cracks."
That was a lie, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday during his closing argument in the senator's federal bribery trial.
Prosecutors say the senator received scores of other gifts from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, all of which the New Jersey Democrat failed to report on his financial-disclosure forms: more free flights, vacations at the friend's home in an exclusive Dominican Republic resort, $4,900 for a three-night stay at a Paris hotel, and more.
"He may have been elected to represent New Jersey. But Robert Menendez chose instead to represent the wealthy doctor from Florida," prosecutor J.P. Cooney said. "He was Salomon Melgen's personal United States senator. Hold these defendants accountable. Find them guilty."
In exchange for the gifts and big political donations, Menendez used the power of his office to advance Melgen's personal and financial interests, the government charges.
Defense attorneys for Melgen declared Thursday that prosecutors had lied to jurors by manipulating witnesses and omitting key facts.
"They don't have any evidence of a bribe, no evidence of corruption, no evidence of a corrupt agreement, no evidence of conspiracy," defense attorney Kirk Ogrosky told jurors.
"Sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer," he said. "And that is, these men are friends."
Closing arguments came after more than two months of testimony from more than 50 witnesses. The defense is to continue its summation on Monday, followed by a rebuttal from the government.
The case is being closely watched in Washington, given the GOP's slim majority in the Senate.
Prosecutors say Menendez helped obtain visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends, sought to change the outcome of the doctor's $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, and pressured federal officials to protect Melgen's port-security contract with the Dominican Republic.
Under the law, prosecutors do not need to prove that Menendez was successful in advocating on Melgen's behalf – or even that the senator intended to take official action. The government just needs to show that the senator agreed to take official acts in exchange for bribes.
"These two defendants shared the same expectation: For all the gifts he got, Sen. Menendez would step to the plate for Dr. Melgen when his number got called," Cooney told jurors.
The defense said there is no written account of a corrupt agreement and contended that Menendez acted out of friendship and legitimate policy interests.
They also pointed to what they described as logical inconsistencies in the government case: If Melgen really had Menendez on retainer, why didn't the senator intervene when an energy company the doctor had invested in hit a roadblock at a federal agency?
And when the Medicare and port-contract disputes first arose, Melgen hired lawyers, Ogrosky said. "That's a hell of a bribe to spend millions of dollars on attorneys when you have a senator on retainer," he said.
Prosecutors say the scheme began when Menendez, a representative in the House, was appointed to the Senate in 2006 by Gov. Jon S. Corzine, and ended in early 2013 amid media scrutiny.
Among the official acts Menendez is accused of taking is pressuring an assistant secretary of state to get the Dominican government to honor a contract with Melgen. The contract to provide cargo screening services at a port had been tied up in litigation.
In late 2011, the senator's staff began asking Melgen for political contributions. But the doctor only delivered $60,000 to two Menendez-aligned political groups once the senator met with the assistant secretary of state, William R. Brownfield, in May 2012.
The senator told Brownfield he would hold a congressional hearing if Brownfield didn't fix it.
And when Melgen stood to lose millions in his dispute with Medicare, Menendez lobbied relentlessly in his favor, urging the administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to clarify its policy on administering multiple doses of a drug from a single vial.
The administrator, Marilyn Tavenner, testified that the change would have benefited Melgen.
She stood by the policy, and Menendez unsuccessfully took his case to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services.
Menendez met with Tavenner on June 7, 2012, just days after Melgen gave a $300,000 check to a Menendez confidant for a super PAC allied with Senate Democrats.
"Who pulls out their checkbook and hand-writes a $300,000 check?" Cooney asked jurors. "How about someone trying to send a message? How about someone who has $8.9 million hanging in the balance?"
Defense attorneys said Melgen contributed to help Democrats and because 2012 was the first presidential election after a Supreme Court decision allowed independent political groups to solicit and spend unlimited amounts.