Bribery trial for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez to open

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez last month in Union Beach, N.J.

Opening arguments in U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s federal corruption trial are set to begin Wednesday, more than two years after the New Jersey Democrat was charged with bribery as part of a scheme to sell his influence in exchange for luxury vacations, gifts, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a Florida eye doctor.

Menendez, who is up for reelection next year, has unsuccessfully asked the judge to delay the trial and change the schedule so that he could participate in “critical votes” before the Senate, underscoring the larger political dynamics at play. For example, the Republican-controlled Senate in July fell one vote short of proceeding with a plan to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act.

Also charged is Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist who prosecutors say lavished Menendez with gifts, sometimes on demand, in exchange for the senator’s efforts to resolve a multimillion-dollar dispute with the federal government, protect his financial interests in the Dominican Republican, and obtain visas for the doctor’s foreign girlfriends.

Prosecutors from the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section plan to call witnesses such as the senator’s staffers, public officials they say Menendez pressured on behalf of his benefactor, and guests and pilots who accompanied and flew Menendez to resorts in the Dominican Republic and a hotel stay in Paris.

The government says testimony will be corroborated by flight manifests, hotel bills, Federal Election Commission filings, credit card statements, and contemporaneous emails exchanged between Menendez, Melgen, and the officials they tried to influence.

One high-profile potential witness: Harry Reid, the former Senate Democratic majority leader, whom Menendez enlisted to try to resolve Melgen’s $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute with the federal government.

Menendez concealed the scheme by omitting the gifts on his financial disclosure forms, prosecutors say, and Melgen routed campaign contributions to Menendez through a super PAC and other entities to try to hide the source and beneficiary of the donations.

Menendez has maintained that he did nothing wrong, and says the Justice Department is trying to criminalize his friendship with Melgen. The senator also says he agreed with Melgen on various policy issues for which he advocated.

In addition to the dollar value of Menendez’s vacations, prosecutors also plan to highlight the luxury of the trips in order to demonstrate “the value of the bribes” and the defendants’ “corrupt intent,” according to an Aug. 30 court filing.

In 2010, for example, Menendez instructed Melgen to book him a three-night stay at a suite in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Paris. The senator wrote his donor in an email that he wanted “a king bed, work area with internet, limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower, views of courtyard or streets,” according to prosecutors.

In order to win a conviction, prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury that in exchange for such gifts, Menendez took “official action” to advance Melgen’s business and personal interests.

Looming over the trial is the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in McDonnell v. United States, in which the high court tossed the conviction of a former Virginia governor and narrowed the definition of bribery under the law.

Menendez asked U.S. District Judge William H. Walls to dismiss the indictment over the summer, arguing that the government had failed to meet the legal threshold established in the McDonnell decision.

The judge said he wouldn’t consider the motion before the government is able to introduce evidence at trial.

Prosecutors say the scheme spanned seven years, beginning shortly after Menendez became a senator in 2006 and ending in 2013.

In addition to helping Melgen’s foreign girlfriends obtain visas, Menendez pressured top officials in the Obama administration and others to change its Medicare policy in Melgen’s favor.

In 2011 Reid, enlisted by Menendez, personally lobbied a top aide to President Barack Obama over the billing dispute, asking the White House deputy chief of staff to call the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, according to prosecutors.

Later, pressed by Menendez, Reid arranged a meeting with Kathleen Sebelius, then the secretary of health and human services, at the majority leader’s Capitol Hill office. Menendez made his case for Melgen’s Medicare position, but the secretary wouldn’t budge.

In a separate trial, a federal jury in Florida convicted Melgen of Medicare fraud in April. His sentencing was delayed until the conclusion of the New Jersey trial.

Prosecutors also say Menendez also corruptly used the power of his office to help protect Melgen’s Dominican port contract.

Menendez and Melgen are charged with bribery, honest services fraud, and related counts.

The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.