The Justice Department plans to put Sen. Robert Menendez back on trial on corruption charges, following a mistrial last year in which most jurors wanted to acquit the New Jersey Democrat.
The trial in Newark federal court of Menendez and his co-defendant, Salomon Melgen, ended in a hung jury in November. When he came back to the Senate in December, the lawmaker said he doubted prosecutors would continue to pursue the case — but if they did, he added: "Bring it on."
On Friday, public corruption prosecutors from the Justice Department filed notice saying they want a retrial "at the earliest possible date."
Menendez, a senior lawmaker, has spent years fighting the charges. Prosecutors said he took gifts from Melgen, including a luxury hotel stay, private jet flights and campaign donations, in exchange for which he tried to help Melgen get U.S. visas for his girlfriends, intervened in the eye doctor's $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare and assisted with a port security contract of Melgen's in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez has long maintained that the government's charges are an attempt to criminalize a longtime friendship between the two men, and that there was nothing corrupt about his acts on Melgen's behalf or Melgen's financial support of the senator.
"We regret that the DOJ, after spending millions and millions of taxpayer dollars, and failing to prove a single allegation in a court of law, has decided to double down on an unjust prosecution," the senator's office said in a statement Friday. "Evidently, they did not hear the overwhelming voices of the New Jerseyans who served on the jury this fall. Senator Menendez fully intends to be vindicated — again."
It was not immediately clear if the Justice Department planned to scale back the charges and evidence for a second trial — a tactic frequently used by prosecutors preparing for a retrial. The first trial lasted more than two months.
Randall D. Eliason, a law professor at George Washington University, said a request for a retrial was always likely because prosecutors would not have brought the case in the first place unless they felt it was strong.
"Any time you're bringing a prosecution against such a high-ranking government official, all eyes are on you, and the stakes are quite high, especially when you're taking a second run at it,'' said Eliason.
The political stakes also will be higher the second time, as Menendez is up for reelection in November. The first trial already had damaged his standing in his home state.
A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Nov. 30 — just days after the mistrial — found a majority of New Jersey voters said he should not be reelected. Forty-nine percent of respondents said Menendez should resign.
Despite his legal troubles, no viable Republican challenger has emerged to take on Menendez, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006.
After the mistrial, Menendez quickly reengaged in his Senate duties — especially on immigration, an issue of special importance given that he is the longest-serving Latino in the chamber.
On Wednesday, Menendez attended a meeting with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly to discuss a potential immigration compromise. He also has been a lead advocate for a bipartisan proposal being pushed by Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
After U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls declared a mistrial in late November, juror Ed Norris said the panel was split 10-2 in favor of acquittal.
Norris, a 49-year-old equipment operator from Morris County, N.J., said at the time that the evidence was mostly emails and that he "didn't see a smoking gun. . . . I don't think the government proved anything.''
The mistrial was a setback for the Justice Department, whose grounds for bringing public corruption cases have been curtailed by a recent Supreme Court decision.
Some legal experts have said an ultimate loss in the Menendez case could lead to a further erosion of the Justice Department's ability to pursue such prosecutions.
In a December interview with reporters, Menendez sharply criticized the FBI and Justice Department for how they had pursued him, suggesting that his Hispanic heritage — and his roots in New Jersey's Hudson County, an area with a history of political corruption — may have played a role.
"We have nearly 10 different individuals who had nothing to do with the case, who were gone to and were asked, 'What can you give us on Menendez?' " the senator said. "Forget about me — the Department of Justice is not supposed to be doing that, and its agents are not supposed to be doing that. The only thing I can possibly think of is that you can't believe that a Latino kid who grew up poor and ultimately comes from this county that has a history — somehow, how does he get to be a U.S. senator without doing things that are wrong?"