NEWARK — A US senator charged with accepting bribes in exchange for his political influence started his defense in a New Jersey federal courtroom on Wednesday, saying "not once have I dishonored my public office."
Bob Menendez, a Democrat who was indicted more than two years ago, is the first sitting US senator to face federal bribery charges in 36 years. He was charged in April 2015 for allegedly accepting gifts and campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for his political influence from a Florida doctor — charges both men deny.
"I believe when all the facts are known, I will be vindicated," Menendez said outside court on Wednesday.
Prosecutors allege that Menendez used his office to help Salomon Melgen — a long time friend and donor — in exchange for lavish gifts, including a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris and trips on the doctor's private jet to his villa in the Dominican Republic.
"This case is about a corrupt politician who sold his Senate office for a life of luxury he could not afford," prosecutor Peter Koski said in his opening statement.
Menendez did not report any of the flights — a potential violation of federal laws — but later repaid Melgen $58,000 after media reports of the trips.
Menendez is accused of aiding Melgen's personal and business affairs, including helping the doctor's foreign girlfriends get visas to visit the US. Menendez also allegedly intervened with the Department of Health and Human Services to help his friend settle an $8.9-million Medicare payment dispute.
Melgen has also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to Menendez's re-election campaign.
Prosecutors allege that the "bribery scheme" began shortly after Menendez was elected to the Senate in 2006.
"Robert Menenedez is only one of two senators representing New Jersey in the senate. He’s a powerful man. He didn’t get enjoy spoils of wealth for nothing. He paid for it by using the power of his public office to to advance the political interests of [Melgen]," Koski said.
"Menendez went to bat for Dr. Melgen to the highest levels of our federal government for many years … because Dr. Melgen gave senator Menendez access to a life that reads like a travel brochure for the rich and famous. This is what bribery looks like," Koski added.
Menendez's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, began his opening statement by saying the government has no evidence the two men arranged a bribery scheme and detailed how his client and Melgen's friendship dates back to the early 1990s.
"Acting out of friendship is not a crime," Lowells said, later adding that Menendez was doing "what 535 members of Congress do all the time" in meeting with government officials about policy matters.
Lowell went on to argue that there is an explanation for Menendez's involvement in each of the instances of alleged bribery brought up by the prosecution. For example, he said, at the meeting Menendez had with officials from Health and Human Services about Medicare reimbursement, the discussion was about correcting the billing process, Lowell said — a concern other senators also had.
Lowell went on to say that nothing Menendez did — no email he sent or meeting he set up — ultimately helped Melgen in any way.
"As a member of Congress, he has the power to write legislation," Lowell told jurors. "He could require HHS to change its policy on reimbursement ... he could have done that. He never used the power he actually had to legislate."
Lowell concluded his opening statement by saying it is wrong for a public official to violate the public's trust, but it's equally wrong for an innocent man to be charged.
"They have a real friendship and not a corrupt relationship," Lowell said.
Anticipating that the defense would argue the two were friends, Koski said, "There’s no friendship exception to bribery. There’s no friendship exception to lying on your financial disclosure forms. There’s no friendship exception to breaking the law."
If Mendendez is convicted, it could have major implications in Washington over who will take his seat in a Senate controlled by Republicans 52-48. In the case of a conviction, Menendez may face pressure to immediately resign, allowing Gov. Chris Christie to name a Republican as Mendendez's successor.
Senate Democrats are expected to fight that, arguing that New Jersey's next governor — which is expected to be Democrat Phil Murphy — name a new senator once he takes office in January.