Prosecutors in the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, turned their focus on Thursday to the senator’s advocacy with federal regulators on behalf of a port security business owned by co-defendant Salomon Melgen.
Prosecutors entered into evidence a receipt showing that Melgen played host to Menendez for a round of golf at a Florida course on Jan. 10, 2013, the day before a Menendez staffer made a series of inquiries to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol on behalf of Melgen’s business.
Jurors also heard testimony from a State Department official who said Menendez threatened to hold congressional hearings if the agency failed to intervene on behalf of Melgen’s business in a dispute with the government of the Dominican Republic. The State Department witness also testified that Melgen brought up his association with Menendez more than once when meeting with officials about the Dominican Republic dispute.
The indictment in the case accuses Menendez of accepting free flights on Melgen’s private jet, vacations at Melgen’s villa in the Dominican Republic and at an upscale hotel in Paris, $40,000 in contributions to his legal defense fund and $750,000 in campaign contributions. Menendez never reported any of the gifts on his Senate financial disclosure forms.
Jurors heard testimony from Stephanie Talton of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol that on Jan. 12, 2013, she received an email from Kerri Talbot, the senator’s chief counsel, asking that the agency halt any donations of cargo imaging equipment to the Dominican Republic. Talton replied to Talbot that she would find out more information on the issue. But the federal official testified that she found it “somewhat odd, somewhat unusual for a senator to ask us to stop doing our law enforcement mission.” The jury also saw a separate chain of email correspondence between Talbot and Menendez, from the same date, in which the senator kept tabs on the inquiry.
Melgen had purchased part interest in a company, ICCSI, which had a contract to furnish imaging equipment to the Dominican Republic for searching cargo in ships for contraband, but he sought help from the U.S. government when the Dominican Republic failed to honor the deal. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Williams Walls denied the government’s bid to enter into evidence a chart made by a Melgen associate, showing calculations estimating the port security contract’s value at $109 million. Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Vaughn argued that the chart, handed over by Melgen, showed “the value of the bribe,” and therefore the accuracy of the estimate was irrelevant, but Walls granted a defense objection calling the figures hearsay.
The jury also heard testimony from Todd Robinson, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, who recalled a 2012 incident when Menendez sought help with Melgen’s contract dispute with the Dominican Republic. At the time, Robinson was a senior State Department official. In a meeting , Menendez, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would conduct a congressional hearing if the State Department didn’t respond to his inquiry promptly, according to Robinson. Such a public hearing would entail a great deal of extra work for agency employees because they had to be prepared for a wide variety of questions, Robinson said. And in a separate meeting that officials had with Melgen, where Menendez was not present, Melgen dropped the senator’s name and made clear Menendez’ interest in the issue, Robinson said.
On cross-examination by Jenny Kramer, a lawyer representing Menendez, Robinson said it was common for U.S. companies with operations in foreign nations to seek State Department assistance with problems encountered there, although it was more common for those companies to contact U.S. embassies than to go through the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
Prosecutors say that Menendez intervened in visa applications by three women friends of Melgen and sought to advocate for him with cabinet-level officials in a Medicare dispute in addition to pressuring government agencies to help Melgen with his Dominican Republic conflict.