Friendship and bribery are not mutually exclusive, prosecutors told the jury during Thursday’s closing arguments in the two-month-long trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen. But Melgen’s lawyers said in summation the prosecution’s case is speculative and lacking in evidence.
The jury is set to hear closing arguments from Menendez’s lawyers on Monday, and could begin deliberations later that day.
The prosecution focused on Menendez’s actions in 2013, after the Washington Post began investigating his relationship with Melgen. Menendez wrote a check for $58,500 to Melgen to reimburse him for flights on the doctor’s private jet after media reports that Menendez did not disclose the flights as gifts. Jurors saw a video clip from CNN where the senator said reporting the flights on his disclosure forms “fell through the cracks.”
“The defense wants you to believe that $58,500 fell through the cracks. $58,500 does not fall through the cracks. Let me recommend a question that you might ask yourself—what was Sen. Menendez so determined to hide? He wanted to hide the fact that he was Dr. Melgen’s personal senator,” Assistant U.S. Attorney J.P. Cooney told the jury.
Cooney told the jury that Menendez and Melgen began their friendship in 1997, and Melgen got his first private jet in 2003, but the senator did not get a chance to ride in Melgen’s jet until after he was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jon Corzine in 2006.
Cooney urged jurors to “use your common sense,” but a lawyer for Melgen, Kirk Ogrosky, told jurors that when prosecutors say they should trust their instincts, ”what they are telling you is they don’t have any evidence. They’re asking you to speculate where your duty is to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. it’s actually pretty terrifying.”
Noting that the prosecution put on 38 witnesses, while the defense presented testimony from 22, Ogrosky said many of the prosecution witnesses traveled long distances to give only brief testimony.
“They’re crafting a carefully created narrative to make you think something happened,” Ogrosky said. He accused the government of suffering from “confirmation bias,” starting with a conclusion that the defendants are guilty, and then seeking to build a case around that.
“They’re lying to you. They’re making up a story and trying to make up evidence to prove it,” said Ogrosky, of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer in Washington, D.C. ”Sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer and the answer is that these two are friends,” he said.
Cooney reviewed each of the 18 counts in the indictment and explained the basis for each. Count 2, in which the defendants are charged with violating the Travel Act, was satisfied by Menendez’s 2010 trip to Paris, where he stayed in an upscale hotel at Melgen’s expense, Cooney said. Count 17, for mail fraud, was satisfied by a $300,000 check that Melgen sent to Menendez through the U.S. Postal Service, Cooney said. Count 18, against Menendez only, for failing to record gifts from Melgen on his Senate financial disclosure forms, requires a finding that the senator signed one of the forms while in New Jersey, for jurisdictional reasons, Cooney said. The jury can find by a preponderance of the evidence that Menendez was in New Jersey when he signed his form on May 15, 2011, Cooney said.
Cooney cautioned the jury not to give too much weight to testimony from Menendez aide Robert Kelly, whose job was to compile and submit the financial disclosure forms. Although Kelly’s testimony “looked like the first time he looked at the instructions” for the disclosure forms, “it was not Rob Kelly’s obligation to report the senator’s gifts,” Cooney said.
Seeking to rebut the defense that Melgen gave things of value to Menendez because the two are friends, Cooney said that people often act for more than one purpose.
“Under the law, friendship and bribery are not mutually exclusive. If, when you deliberate, you ask yourself if Sen. Menendez and Dr. Melgen are friends, you’re asking the wrong question,” Cooney said.
Cooney went on to say the jury’s job did not require it to take a position on the government’s policies for security in seaports or to decide the merits of a Medicare drug dosing regulation. Melgen sought assistance from Menendez on business relating to those issues. Nor must the jury link the gift of a specific item of value to a specific act to find the defendants guilty of bribery, Cooney said. And a campaign contribution can be considered a bribe, Cooney told the jury.
Another attorney representing Melgen, Jonathan Cogan, said the prosecution had shown jurors photos of amenities at Casa de Campo, the resort community in the Dominican Republic where Menendez made numerous visits to Melgen’s home, even though Menendez never used them. The amenities include the beach, a restaurant, skeet and pheasant shooting and a spa with massage tables.
“Why do you think they did that? They did it because the case they’re trying to sell you is that Sen. Menendez sold his office for a life of luxury he could not afford,” said Cogan, of Kobre & Kim in New York. “The reality is that when Sen. Menendez would travel down to Casa de Campo to visit Dr. Melgen, it was to spend time together. This is not what a bribe looks like.”
The indictment charges that Menendez accepted nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen, including lodgings at luxury hotels and flights in Melgen’s private jet and on commercial airlines. The indictment claims that Menendez’s assistance to Melgen in a dispute with the Medicare program and the senator’s attempts to advocate with federal officials on behalf of Melgen’s port security business were provided in exchange for the gifts. The indictment also charges that Menendez helped obtain U.S. visas for three friends of Melgen.