Feds will retry N.J. Sen. Bob Menendez on corruption charges

Budget Battle
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018, following a meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Federal prosecutors said Friday they would retry U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), two months after a jury in Newark, N.J., deadlocked on bribery charges against him.

The Department of Justice said it also would retry Menendez’s co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.

After an 11-week trial, a judge in November declared a mistrial when jurors said they could not reach a unanimous verdict. Jurors later told reporters the vote was 10-2 to acquit the defendants on most of the 18 counts. Given that split, prosecutors will likely have to reshape parts of their case to win a conviction this time.

The Justice Department said the decision to retry the case “was made based on the facts and the law, following a careful review.” A date hasn’t been set for the new trial, but prosecutors asked the judge to schedule it for the “earliest possible date.”

Prosecutors on Friday also accused defense attorneys of “making comments and arguments designed to politicize and racialize this case” during the first trial, and asked the judge to prohibit such comments going forward.

In a statement, Menendez’s office said it was disappointed by the decision.

“We regret that the DOJ, after spending millions and millions of taxpayer dollars, and failing to prove a single allegation in a court of law, has decided to double down on an unjust prosecution,” it said in a statement. “Evidently, they did not hear the overwhelming voices of the New Jerseyans who served on the jury this fall.  Sen. Menendez fully intends to be vindicated — again.”

The New Jersey Democrat is accused of accepting free trips on Melgen’s private jet, vacations at his villa in the Dominican Republic, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for advancing the doctor’s personal and financial interests.

Prosecutors say the senator helped obtain visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, pressured federal officials to resolve a multimillion-dollar Medicare billing dispute in Melgen’s favor, and pushed an assistant secretary of state to advance Melgen’s interests in a port-security contract dispute with the Dominican Republic.

For the most part, the senator hasn’t denied taking those actions. But he has said he was motivated by friendship and legitimate policy interests — an argument that appeared to resonate with jurors. Melgen was convicted of Medicare fraud in a separate criminal case last year, and prosecutors have asked a Florida judge to impose a 30-year prison term.

Menendez, who has served in the Senate since 2006, has not formally announced his political plans, but in a brief interview off the Senate floor Friday night, he said, “I absolutely intend to run again.”

He also blasted the timing of the Justice Department decision, which could lead to a trial during an election year. “There’s no reason why they had to take two months to figure this out. If they wanted to retry it, they should have done it two weeks after the trial instead of waiting.”

A damaging retrial — and possible conviction — could thwart Menendez’s plans, although New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats, including Gov. Murphy, have said they would support the senator’s reelection campaign.

“I support Sen. Menendez, and I believe he deserves the benefit that is the basis of our entire justice system: We are all innocent until proven otherwise,” Murphy said in a statement. “I won’t speculate past that.”

George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey Democratic power broker, also reaffirmed his support for Menendez on Friday, describing the senator as “a friend to South Jersey and the city of Camden.”

Candidates must submit petitions by April 2 to appear on the June 5 primary ballot. If Menendez were to resign, Murphy could appoint a replacement.

A grand jury charged Menendez and Melgen in 2015 with conspiracy, bribery, and honest services fraud. The senator was also charged with making false statements on his financial disclosure forms.

New Jersey voters have not elected a Republican to the Senate in more than 40 years.

Bob Hugin, an ally of Republican former Gov. Chris Christie and an executive with the pharmaceutical company Celgene, is considering running against Menendez, according to Politico.

“Menendez is an embarrassment to New Jersey, and if he runs for reelection while on trial for corruption, he will lose,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.

Staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.