Menendez defense rests its case without calling senator to testify


Prosecutors allege Robert Menendez did numerous official favors for Salomon Melgen — including advocating for the doctor at the top echelons of the federal government. | Getty

NEWARK — U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s defense rested in his federal corruption trial on Monday without the Democratic senator taking the witness stand.

Menendez’s co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, also declined to testify.

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The two men are charged with bribery. Prosecutors allege Menendez did numerous official favors for Melgen — including advocating for the doctor at the top echelons of the federal government over his $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare and a port contract in the Dominican Republic — in exchange for hotel stays, private jet flights and about $750,000 in political contributions.

The case now moves to another crucial phase. On Tuesday, attorneys for both sides and Judge William Walls will spend the day grappling over what instructions Walls will give to the jury.

The prosecution’s case relies entirely on circumstantial evidence, with no documents or recordings showing there was a quid pro quo between Menendez and Melgen. The defense argues the two are close friends and that Melgen’s largesse had nothing to do with actions the senator took that could benefit him.

Walls will ultimately tell the jury how to weigh the evidence in considering the men’s guilt or innocence.

“Your honor, on behalf of Senator Menendez, given the state of the record, the defense rests its part of the case,” Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell told Walls at about 1:30 p.m.

The defense called nearly two dozen witnesses, including several current and former Menendez staffers, as well as a State Department official. The defense also called several character witnesses, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey’s junior senator, and Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

On several occasions during the trial, which began Sept. 6, prosecutors objected to defense questions of witnesses that sought to give an idea of Menendez or Melgen’s state of mind. They argued the defense was attempting to get that point across without calling Menendez or Melgen’s to the stand.

The end of the defense’s case came at the beginning of the trial’s ninth week.

Prior to resting, the defense made a last-ditch attempt to declare a mistrial, arguing that Walls had refused to let it introduce evidence and to call witnesses to help it make its case and had biased the jury in some of his instructions. The motion was rejected by Walls.

The final witness in the case was Gabriel Klausner, an analyst at the law firm Kobre & Kim, which Melgen hired to represent him.

Klausner presented two lists to the jury: One of all the flights Menendez took to the Dominican Republic from 1998 to 2012, and another of all the political contributions Melgen had made that were related to New Jersey.

Defense attorneys called Klausner to provide their own narrative of Menendez’s flights to the Dominican Republic, showing many commercial flights that he paid for himself in an attempt to undercut the prosecution’s argument that Melgen provided Menendez with a lifestyle the senator couldn’t otherwise afford.

The donations were also intended to show that Melgen had a long history of donating to New Jersey politicians, mostly Menendez.

Prosecutor Monique Vaughn, however, drew a red line near the top of the list of donations, showing that most of the money Melgen donated came after Menendez became a senator, and thus a much more powerful figure.

Defense attorney Murad Hussain attempted to point out that Melgen gave more because he had just come into millions of dollars from an investment, but Walls wouldn’t allow him to.

At one point, Hussain asked Klausner if there was any indication Menendez tried to hide contributions from Melgen. Prosecutors objected, saying Klausner was not competent to answer the question. Walls, apparently smarting from the defense’s earlier argument that he had improperly presided over the trial, asked the jury to leave the courtroom.

“Don’t play games with me,” Walls told Hussain. “I’m in no mood today after listening to and reading what you think I have done. … I’m not in the most pleasant mood because I consider most of what was said palpably without merit.”

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