Newark — Closing arguments delivered Thursday in the federal bribery trial of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) featured two divergent takes on nearly nine weeks of testimony in a case that could have broader legal and political ramifications.
That question, and all of the details surrounding it in the 18-count indictment against Menendez, will soon be up to a jury to consider.
“These two defendants can no longer hide behind their power and wealth,” prosecutor J.P. Cooney said during 90 minutes of closing arguments in U.S. District Court in Newark on Thursday. “Use your common sense. . . . Don’t let the defendants use their friendship as a camouflage for bribery.”
In a sharp rebuttal, Kirk Ogrosky, an attorney for Melgen, said the government used “terrifying” tactics, including witness manipulation and misleading testimony, to build a nonexistent case.
The prosecutors “are lying to you,” Ogrosky said in a packed courtroom. “They’re making up a story and trying to get the evidence to fit that story. . . . You can’t trust anything the government is telling you. . . . They created a show.”
Menendez is accused of taking gifts — including a luxury Paris hotel stay, flights on private jets and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions — from Melgen.
In return, prosecutors allege, Menendez helped Melgen with a variety of concerns: getting U.S. visas for his girlfriends, intervening in his $8.9 million dispute with Medicare and trying to preserve Melgen’s business interests in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez, who has served in the Senate since 2006, didn’t take the stand during the trial. Neither did Melgen, who was convicted this year on 67 counts of Medicare fraud.
Menendez could face a lengthy prison sentence if convicted and is already facing calls from Republicans to resign if found guilty.
The senator’s attorneys will make their closing arguments Monday, and the seven women and five men on the jury are expected to start deliberations next week.
A recent Supreme Court ruling overturning the conviction of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) looms over the trial. U.S. District Judge William Walls has referred several times in the past months to the impact of the ruling, which narrowed the definition of an “official act” by a politician. Wells called the Menendez trial a test case for the McDonnell decision.
The prosecution, which called nearly three dozen witnesses, has argued that campaign contributions from Melgen are connected to a quid-pro-quo bribery agreement with Menendez and that the other alleged bribes in the indictment resulted in Menendez being on retainer for his friend whenever he needed a favor.
“You can’t get away with bribery because you put a politician on your payroll instead of paying him on a fee-for-service basis,” Cooney said. “It’s called a stream of benefits.”
Through the testimony of 22 witnesses, the defense tried to chip away at the prosecution’s case alleging a criminal conspiracy between Menendez and Melgen, who their attorneys said took vacations together and acted solely out of a close friendship, not corrupt intent.
The defense, which spoke for about two hours Thursday, said Menendez’s intervention in the Medicare dispute reflected his interest in the agency’s policy on the “multi-dosing” of a drug for macular degeneration. At issue was Melgen’s practice of extracting multiple doses of the drug from a single vial and billing Medicare for each application of the drug.
The defense has argued that Medicare allowed for the “multi-dosing” of some drugs but not for others, creating confusion among doctors and encouraging the waste of medicine and taxpayer money.
The prosecution said the “multi-dosing” issue served as subterfuge for what in reality was a “multi-billing” issue.
Cooney noted that Melgen in 2012 contributed $300,000, earmarked for New Jersey, to Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, a week before Menendez and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) met at Reid’s office to discuss the Medicare dispute with Kathleen Sebelius, then the secretary of health of human services.
Melgen gave a series of contributions about the time that Menendez went to bat with officials from the State and Commerce departments on Melgen’s port concerns in the Dominican Republic, prosecutors say.
Jonathan Cogan, an attorney for Melgen, said those contributions didn’t go directly to Menendez, who cruised to reelection in his 2012 Senate race.
Cogan said prosecutors have tried to link dates, emails and partial facts to paint a picture of corruption where none exists.
The defense also disputed the prosecution’s theory that Melgen’s gifts allowed Menendez to live a life of luxury he couldn’t otherwise afford, arguing he traveled to the Dominican Republic to spend time with Melgen and rarely left the doctor’s modest home while he was there.
The defense’s case included character witness testimony from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Both described Menendez as honorable and trustworthy.
Defense attorneys argued in a mistrial motion this week that Walls prevented them from giving the “full flavor” of their case by restricting witness testimony and the introduction of exhibits.
During closing arguments, prosecutors showed the jury a 2013 interview clip in which Menendez accepted responsibility for waiting more than two years to reimburse $58,500 to Melgen for trips on his private plane.
“The bottom line is, when it came to my attention, I paid for it,” Menendez told the CNN reporter. “It unfortunately fell through the cracks.”
Cooney said Menendez wrote the check only “because he got caught” by a Washington Post reporter who emailed Menendez’s office in November 2012 with questions about his relationship with Melgen. Menendez, Cooney said, continued to conceal other flights and gifts he had taken from Melgen since 2006 by not listing them on Senate financial disclosure forms.
“What was it that Senator Menendez was so determined to hide?” Cooney asked the jury Thursday. “You know the answer to that question from the nine weeks you’ve spent in this courtroom.”
Cooney said Menendez and Melgen were “too sophisticated” to leave an obvious trail of their bribery agreement.
“Senator Menendez held himself out as putting New Jersey first, but the same year he became a U.S. senator, Dr. Melgen came calling with a better offer,” Cooney said. “He may have been elected to represent New Jersey, but he ended up representing the wealthy doctor from Florida.”
Ogrosky, showing exasperation at times, said a lack of substance in the government’s case resulted in a long trial “about nothing.”
“I say there’s been no crime that’s been committed here,” Ogrosky said. “Sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer, that these men were friends.”