Wednesday’s opening arguments in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, and eye doctor Salomon Melgen focused on the extent and significance of the two men’s friendship.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Koski told the jury that Menendez’s Senate website offered assistance to constituents but advised that inquiries from residents of other states would be referred to their own state’s senators. But Menendez did not follow that policy with Melgen, a Florida resident, when he sought to advocate for the doctor’s business and personal business with executive-branch officials, Koski said.
Koski told the jury that Menendez had intervened when three women friends of Melgen were denied U.S. visas, when Melgen sought help with the Homeland Security department in a business matter involving port security in the Dominican Republic, and when Melgen was accused of overbilling Medicare to the tune of $9 million in his ophthalmology practice. Koski also described how Menendez took flights on Melgen’s private jet, how the senator stayed in luxury hotels and resorts at Melgen’s expense, and how the doctor made contributions to political action committees at the senator’s request.
“Ladies and gentlemen, when Dr. Melgen got caught lining his pocket with millions of dollars, he called Sen. Robert Menendez. Melgen’s millions bought Menendez access to a lifestyle that he couldn’t afford but enjoyed greatly,” Koski said.
“No doubt the defendants enjoyed each other’s company. They had fun together. Sen. Menendez went to the wedding of Dr. Melgen’s daughter. That is no defense to what happened here. Friends can commit crimes together. There’s no friendship exception to bribery. There’s no friendship exemption to lying on your financial disclosure forms,” Koski said.
But Menendez’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said the prosecution had not given a true picture of the relationship between his client and Melgen. Lowell said the prosecution’s case focused on the years 2006-2013, but the senator’s friendship with Melgen and their custom of exchanging gifts and celebrating birthdays together dates to 1993, when the two first met. Menendez had given Melgen a gold-plated watch and gave his daughter $1,000 when she got married, Lowell said.
“If you conclude Sen. Menendez did what he did out of friendship, you will have to acquit him of the charges,” said Lowell, of Norton Rose Fulbright in Washington.
Lowell also said Menendez had not always done as Melgen asked, citing an instance when the doctor sought a visa for a woman he planned to hire as his housekeeper. Menendez refused because others already in the United States could take that job, Lowell said. Lowell added that Menendez’s efforts to advocate on his friend’s behalf had not helped much in those matters.
Lowell also said that in those matters where Menendez intervened on Melgen’s behalf, he did so because there were broader public policy issues involved.
Melgen’s lawyer, Kirk Ogrosky of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, also said friendship was the sole motivation of gifts his client gave Menendez.
“I’m here to tell you every single thing my client shared with his friend, he gave out of friendship,” Ogrosky said. The prosecution was mistaken, he said, adding, “when you look at the world through a filthy, dirty window, everything is dirty. That’s what they did.”
Ogrosky acknowledged that Melgen, who is married, sought visas for three women that the government referred to as his “girlfriends,” said that the case was “not a case about Dr. Melgen’s personal life.” Melgen’s marriage is between him and his wife, and she will testify on his behalf, Ogrosky said.
The trial is expected to continue for six to eight weeks. Earlier on Wednesday, another of Menendez’s lawyers, Raymond Brown, had a strained exchange with U.S. District Judge William Walls of the District of New Jersey. Brown complained that the government filed a pretrial brief that described a resort in the Dominican Republic where Melgen hosted Menendez as popular with Beyonce, George Clooney and Bill Gates. News coverage of the filing could reach potential jurors, Brown said, asking the judge, “do you really think there was a purpose … other than to catch the attention of the Fourth Estate?”
“In this case, I am more liberal than you are,” Walls said.
Brown went on to say the judge “gratuitously disparaged the accused” and speculated about his trial strategy in a written ruling denying the senator’s request to adjourn trial on days when important votes were scheduled in the Senate.
Walls also said Brown had filed proposed jury instructions prematurely, and that such instructions are usually filed at the end of the trial, but Brown replied that the judge had issued an order instructing lawyers to file jury instructions before trial begins.
“We just obeyed your order,” Brown said.
“Fine. Bill me.” Walls said.