Tags: Bob Menendez | corruption | indictment | Saloman Melgen

Experts: Jury Won't Buy Menendez's Friendship Defense

Image: Experts: Jury Won't Buy Menendez's Friendship Defense
(Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

Thursday, 02 Apr 2015 10:46 AM

The defense lawyers fighting the corruption case against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez will set out to show that the New Jersey Democrat and wealthy eye surgeon Saloman Melgen were merely the best of friends.

On the prosecution side, the Justice Department will have to prove that the extravagant gifts and campaign contributions Menendez received from Melgen were not purely based on friendship but payback for political favors, according to Politico.

Federal prosecutors claim the senator used his office to secure visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends and to help him collect millions of dollars in Medicare billing disputes, as well as to avoid cargo screening in Dominican ports.

Menendez and Melgen were charged by a federal grand jury with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud.

Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a news conference that "prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption."

Politico points out that because Menendez did not change his votes or introduce legislation to benefit Melgen, his lawyers could argue that he only helped the Florida ophthalmologist as a friend and not in an official capacity.

But experts believe that Menendez has a losing case, even though there is no direct proof that the senator took gifts worth nearly $1 million, including expensive meals, trips aboard Melgen's luxury jet, and an elaborate suite at a Paris hotel, in exchange for services rendered.

"These kinds of lavish gifts and these kinds of extensive favors really don't pass the smell test," said Noah Bookbinder, who worked in the Justice Department's public integrity unit and now leads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who's now a partner at Arent Fox's white-collar and investigations practice, told Politico that the friendship defense could have a negative effect for Menendez with jurors.

"I don't think a jury is going to like this conduct," Zeidenberg said. "I think they're going to be offended by it."

He maintains that the evidence of corruption is even greater than the case against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was convicted last year on 11 counts of federal corruption.

Zeidenberg said the value of the alleged gifts Menendez received from Melgen and the significance of the favors is far more than in the McDonnell case, according to the political news website.

McDonnell alleged in vain that the favors he did for former Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams were based on friendship and not in exchange for gifts and loans.

"After the McDonnell case, what might constitute an official act seems to have a broader definition and appears to include activities beyond bread-and-butter governing," said former North Carolina deputy attorney general Hampton Dellinger, now working for the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

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The defense lawyers fighting the corruption case against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez will set out to show that the New Jersey Democrat and wealthy eye surgeon Saloman Melgen were merely the best of friends.
Bob Menendez, corruption, indictment, Saloman Melgen
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2015-46-02
Thursday, 02 Apr 2015 10:46 AM
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