Senator Robert Menendez and his close friend Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, are heading to a jury decision after U.S. District Judge William Walls ruled that the indictment against them for public corruption would stand. Menendez not only stands in considerable jeopardy for his highly questionable relationship with Melgen but his conviction could flip the seat in the Senate since Governor Chris Christie would appoint his successor. ( A new governor will be elected for January).
Melgen gave lucrative gifts and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to support Menendez. This include trips on private jets and a three-night stay at a Paris hotel among a “stream of benefits” from Melgen. In return, prosecutors allege that Melgen received the support of Menendez on various issues.
The defense made a strong argument under a tougher standard established by the Supreme Court in the case of former Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia in the interpretation of the term “official acts.” The Supreme Court said prosecutors must prove a formal exercise of power on “something specific and focused” by an accused public official. I was a critic of the McDonnell prosecution and supported the ruling of the Supreme Court. However, as I previously discussed, there are distinctions to be drawn between the McDonnell and Menendez cases. In the current case, there is a stronger basis to allege a quid pro quo since Menendez intervened on Melgen’s behalf over things like billing rules under Medicare — an issue worth millions to Melgen. He also intervened on visa problems for Melgen’s family. The record in the case confirms the worst suspicions of voters in how their elected officials conduct themselves with wealthy donors. Menendez showed little concern over ethics or conflicts as he accepted lavish gifts from Melgen.
As predicted, the court saw this record as enough to go to a jury on the higher standard set out by the Supreme Court. Walls ruled “A rational jury could conclude that the defendants entered into a quid-pro-quo agreement.”
If convicted, the case could present a significant test appeal for the “stream of benefits” theory of the Justice Department in public corruption cases.
The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).