Mistrial in Sen. Bob Menendez corruption trial after jury deadlocks

Menendez Trial
Sen. Bob Menendez waves to reporters while arriving at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Courthouse.

NEWARK, N.J. — A federal judge on Thursday declared a mistrial in U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption case, leaving federal bribery charges against him unresolved and the New Jersey Democrat secure in his seat for now in a closely divided Senate.

The jury’s inability to reach a unanimous decision after seven days and 30 hours of deliberations also delivered a blow to the Justice Department, which has faced a number of high-profile setbacks to its efforts to prosecute corruption cases since a 2016 Supreme Court decision raised the bar for proving political bribery.

The jury was split 10-2 in favor of acquitting Menendez and his codefendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, according to one juror and an alternate who spoke to the other panelists after the mistrial ruling.

As U.S. District Judge William H. Walls declared further deliberations “futile” and dismissed the deadlocked jury for good just after 1 p.m., the senator stood at the defense table, held his palms out and directed his gaze skyward, saying quiet words to himself.

Later, Menendez – teary-eyed, yet defiant — addressed reporters gathered on the steps of  the Newark federal courthouse.

“The way this case started was wrong,” he said, his voice wavering at times. “Certain elements of this FBI could not understand or, even worse, accept that a Latino kid from Union City, Hudson County could grow up to be a United States Senator.”

Standing in front of his son, Robert, and daughter, Alicia, he added: “I understand why so many Americans feel that justice is elusive. I’ve also learned about the power of the federal government and how it can crush you if it wants to.”

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Dr. Salomon Melgen, Menendez’s co-defendant, pictured in April. In a separate criminal case, he was convicted of Medicare fraud.  Lannis Water/Palm Beach Post via AP

Prosecutors did not immediately say whether they would seek to retry the senator on charges stemming from lavish gifts, flights on private jets and campaign support he received from Melgen, his friend and co-defendant. The senator, whose public career has spanned more than four decades, maintained that he had done nothing wrong and would be exonerated.

Melgen, who was convicted of Medicare fraud earlier this year in a separate criminal case, also faces potential retrial on the bribery charges.

“The Department of Justice appreciates the jury’s service in this lengthy trial,” a DOJ spokesman said in a statement Thursday. “The department will carefully consider next steps in this important matter.”

Yet juror Ed Norris, a 49-year-old equipment operator from Morris County, said the panel remained largely unconvinced of the government’s case after the 11-week trial.

“There was no smoking gun in this case,” he said. When prosecutors concluded their case in court, Norris said he thought to himself: “In my gut I was like, that was it? That’s all they had?”

He added that the two jurors convinced of Menendez’s guilt did not explain their reasoning. Even the alternates, who did not participate in deliberations, seemed to favor acquittal, said one, Steve Platt, a 49-year-old finance director for a pharmaceutical company who lives in Essex County.

“It was very hard to specifically link the things Sen. Menendez did with the things that Dr. Melgen provided,” he said. “I’m sure if I had a friend with a private jet who offered to take me from his place in Florida to the Dominican Republic because he  was going anyway, I would go, too.”

Though the trial was inconclusive, its end quickly reverberated from the Newark courtroom to halls of power in Trenton and Washington, where Republicans had hoped the trial would lead to Menendez’s ouster and give Gov. Christie a chance to appoint his replacement and boost the GOP’s two-vote majority in the Senate.

Menendez’s top political adviser, Mike Soliman, said the senator will soon announce a bid for reelection in 2018. For his part, the senator said Thursday, “For those who were digging my political grave so you could jump into my seat, I know who you are.”

Should he seek reelection, Menendez would have the support of key Democratic Party leaders. Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney both said they would support Menendez’s reelection bid, a sign that the incumbent likely wouldn’t face a serious primary challenger.

“He was tried. They brought the charges and they couldn’t find him guilty,” Sweeney told reporters at an event in Atlantic City. “We should move on.”

Still, his future remains murky.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) immediately called for an ethics investigation into his colleague’s behavior, saying the trial had “shed light on serious accusations of violating the public’s trust.” The Senate Ethics Committee said it had begun “a preliminary inquiry” into Menendez’s actions in 2012, but put that on hold out of deference to the criminal investigation.

“At this time, the Committee intends to resume its process,” the panel said in a statement Thursday.

Menendez also faces the possibility of a damaging re-trial hanging over any campaign. Headlines from the trial just concluded have already sunk his approval ratings to the lowest point of his career.

For that reason, Republicans intend to take a shot at a weakened Menendez in 2018.

His legal troubles began with unsubstantiated online rumors during his 2012 reelection campaign. Though the anonymous accusations were eventually discredited, the ties between Melgen and Menendez brought on an investigation that led to an indictment in early 2015.

Menendez, investigators discovered, had taken numerous flights on Melgen’s private jet without reporting the gifts. Though he paid $58,500 for those trips once they became public, prosecutors found that the gifts went much further.

Menendez took frequent trips to Melgen’s luxurious Dominican Republic villa, stayed three nights at an upscale Paris hotel courtesy of the doctor’s American Express points, and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions intended to benefit the senator’s 2012 campaign and other groups he supported.

At the same time, Menendez pressed officials to adopt a policy that would help Melgen in an $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare. The senator also urged officials to take steps that would help Melgen in a business dispute in the Dominican Republic and aided the doctor in obtaining visas for his overseas girlfriends.

Prosecutors said Melgen effectively had the senator “on retainer” for his services.

Menendez argued that the gifts were just exchanges between friends, nothing more, and his advocacy was based on sound policy views, even if Melgen brought the issues to the senator’s attention.

The national implications of Menendez’s case were heightened by a Supreme Court decision that raised the bar for corruption cases by narrowing the definition of what can be considered an “official act” by a public official.

At least three politicians have had verdicts or sentences overturned based on the 2016 decision, which vacated the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and Menendez’s attorneys had cited that ruling in defending the senator.

The last senator to be convicted of a crime remains another New Jerseyan, Harrison A. Williams, who was caught in the Abscam scandal and found guilty in 1981.

The last time federal prosecutors attempted to prosecute a sitting U.S. Senator, Alaska’s Ted Stevens, they obtained a conviction only to see the case fall apart and withdrawn before sentencing over concerns of prosecutorial misconduct.

As he left the courthouse Thursday, Menendez said he was grateful that — at least for now — he had escaped a similar fate.

“I look forward to going back to Washington to fight for the people of New Jersey and across the country,” he said. “Today is resurrection day.”

Staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.