The defense rested its case Monday in the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen following a ruling denying a motion for a mistrial.
Heading into its ninth week, the trial is nearing its conclusion, with Tuesday set aside for drafting jury instructions and closing arguments set to begin Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge William Walls denied a motion by Melgen and Menendez for a mistrial. Walls denounced the defendants’ quibbling over his Oct. 26 ruling barring testimony from Marc Elias, a Perkins Coie lawyer who represented the senator in a Senate ethics inquiry. The defense said Elias’ testimony would have shed light on Senate rules for reporting gifts. Walls said no such testimony was needed because another witness already gave testimony on that topic. The judge also suggested the defense was trying to include testimony from Elias in order to raise issues not before the court, such as the merits of Melgen’s $8.9 million contract dispute with the Medicare program.
Menendez is accused of using his official powers to benefit Melgen’s personal and business affairs in exchange for free rides on private jets, accommodations at luxury hotels and more than $600,000 in campaign contributions. He and Melgen contend that the gifts that Menendez received are an expression of the close friendship between the two men.
Counsel for Menendez and Melgen argued in court papers that the court’s ruling barring testimony from Elias would prevent them from countering inferences by the prosecution that the defendants concealed their bribery scheme. Elias was seen as helping the defendants counter the prosecution’s documentary evidence supporting their concealment claim. Elias would have testified that he disclosed to the Senate Ethics Committee the number of flights Menendez took on Melgen’s private plane, among other things.
“The fact that Mr. Elias was an agent for Senator Menendez and could have presented facts known to the Senator without the Senator taking the stand is no different than a dozen witnesses who have testified in this trial. Calling Mr. Elias was not an attempt to introduce evidence that the prosecution would not have been able to test with cross examination. By barring the testimony of Mr. Elias, the Court has prevented Defendants from showing the jury evidence to negate concealment,” the defendants said in their mistrial motion.
Walls said he was guided by the 2013 holding of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in United States v. Gaston, which said that “evidence is ‘cumulative’ when it adds very little to the probative force of the other evidence in the case,”
“It’s up to this court to determine when enough is enough,” Walls said.
The ruling follows claims by lawyers for Menendez and Melgen on Oct. 26 that a series of evidentiary rulings by Walls had made it hard for them to defend their clients. Defense lawyers cited an earlier ruling barring testimony from another defense witness, Medicare official Amy Bassano, and limits on the scope of testimony from Augustin Garcia, a Florida Democratic Party official. They also said their case was handicapped by a decision by Walls preventing them from telling the jury that a $1,000 gift that Menendez gave to Melgen’s daughter for her 2009 wedding was the largest gift she received from a nonrelative.
Also on Monday, Walls denied a defense motion seeking to admit into evidence roughly two dozen items that the judge had excluded in the past. Those items include various emails and letters, a check from Menendez to Melgen for $4,943 in reimbursement for the senator’s stay in a luxury hotel in Paris, and excerpts of a 2009 book by Menendez, “Growing American Roots,” about growing up Hispanic in America. The defense sought to introduce an inscription from Menendez to Melgen and a section of the book mentioning him.
Later Monday, testimony of a summary witness for the defense prompted evidentiary disputes that required the jury to be sent out of the courtroom twice. Gabriel Klausner, a nonattorney analyst for Kobre & Kim in New York, one of the firms representing Melgen, testified about charts he compiled listing campaign contributions by Melgen and trips that Menendez made to the Dominican Republic. The objections were prompted by questions from the prosecution about whether contributions to funds not linked to Menendez could still benefit him.