Indicted in April 2015 on multiple counts of bribery and corruption, New Jersey senator Robert Menendez, whom you might remember as one of the "gang of eight" from the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, stands accused of using his influence to benefit one of his top donor friends — married eye doctor Salomon Melgen, 60 — in exchange for campaign contributions.
Should the trial commence according to plan, opening statements will begin on September 6. Here are 7 things you need to know:
1.) Menendez allegedly influenced the State Department into granting visas for Melgen's foreign model girlfriends. According to the unsealed charging documents that the New York Post profiled back in 2015, "Sen. Robert Menendez mobilized his staff to secure a visa for a Brazilian actress who posed nude on the cover of Sexy magazine; he stepped up for a sultry Ukrainian student who wanted a plastic-surgery consult; and he directd a staff member to 'call Ambassador asap' in order to reverse a visa denial to a 22-year-old Dominican model."
A full-profile on all three of "the models who could bring down a senator" and their relations with Melgen can be read here.
2.) Menendez allegedly used his influence to help Melgen's business. Aside from pushing the State Department to help his friend have sex, the charging documents also allege that Menendez pressed the State Department, Homeland Security Department, and Medicare officials to aid Melgen's business.
His pressuring of the State Department was to "convince the Dominican government to honor a Melgen-owned company's exclusive contract to screen outbound cargo containers," according to a North Jersey report.
Mendendez also allegedly stopped "the Homeland Security Department from donating cargo-screening equipment to the Dominican government" and influenced "Medicare officials in a $9 million billing dispute over Melgen being reimbursed for administering multiple doses of an expensive eye drug drawn from what were supposed to be single-dose vials."
3.) Melgen allegedly contributed more than $1 million to Menendez for his services. The bribes came in the form of financial campaign contributions and gifts. North Jersey listed them in chronological order:
- August 2010 flights: Menendez flew in Melgen's jet from Washington to the Dominican Republic for a vacation at Melgen's villa in Casa De Campo, then back to Teterboro three days later. Menendez reimbursed Melgen, at charter rates, in January 2013, after an investigation was launched. (Bribery counts 3 and 4)
- September 2010 flights and hotel: Menendez and a guest flew in Melgen's jet to the Dominican Republic to attend a wedding in Punta Cana with Melgen and his wife. After staying in a hotel, for which Melgen paid $770, Menendez and guest flew back to Teterboro three days later. Menendez reimbursed Melgen for the cost of the flights in January 2013. (Bribery counts 5 and 6, and Honest services fraud count 15)
- October 2010 flights: Melgen bought an $890 first-class ticket for Menendez to fly from Newark to Florida, then paid $8,037 two days later for Menendez to take a charter flight back to the Washington, D.C. area. (Bribery counts 7 and 8 and Honest services fraud count 16)
- May 2012 contributions: After an email request from Menendez's chief of staff, Melgen and his family gave $60,000, of which $20,000 went to the Fund to Uphold the Constitution, a legal expense fund Menendez created to battle a recall effort; and $40,000 to the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (Bribery counts 9 and 10)
- June 2012 contributions: Melgen's clinic, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, gave $300,000 earmarked for New Jersey to Majority PAC, a national super PAC working to keep Democrats in the Senate majority. (Bribery counts 11 and 12)
- September-October 2012 contributions: $403,500 donated by VRC between Sept. 30 and Oct. 12 included $103,500 combined to county Democratic organizations of Camden, Essex, Passaic and Union counties and $300,000 to Majority PAC. (Bribery counts 13 and 14; Honest services fraud count 17)
4.) Republicans and Democrats have begun eyeing Menendez's potential empty seat. Should Menendez lose his seat, both Democrats and Republicans have already developed strategies to fill it with one of their own. The best shot for Republicans is if Menendez vacated his seat before Republican Governor Chris Christie leaves office on January 16: Christie would then pick a Republican replacement and further ensconce the GOP's Senate majority.
The Democrats' best hope is Menendez either beating the conviction or stalling his removal, which would require the approval of the Senate Ethics Committee, which is notorious for moving slowly in these matters, long enough for Christie to leave office.
5.) Menendez denies all wrongdoing. Menendez maintains that no illegal activity took place. North Jersey profiled his upcoming defense based on several unsuccessful motions to have the charges dropped.
- What the government calls luxury travel provided as bribes were actually two longtime friends vacationing together;
- It was an oversight and not concealment to leave the trips off of financial disclosure forms, but the trips could have qualified for an exclusion in Senate rules for travel with friends if Menendez had sought advance permission;
- Menendez was not trying to get Medicare officials to be lenient on Melgen's Medicare billing issue, he was questioning whether an unclear regulation was being applied fairly, and if the government was paying pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms for medication that was being wasted;
- The people with the power to issue visas, apply pressure on the cargo contract, stop the scanner donation or set Medicare policy were not under Menendez's control, so his efforts to lobby them do not meet a recent Supreme Court definition for official acts that prosecutors must prove to sustain a bribery charge;
- Nearly all of the political contributions went to committees Menendez did not control, and the Supreme Court has said contributions to independent committees such as super PACs are an exercise of free speech and do not corrupt elected officials;
- The stream of benefits theory is barred by the same court ruling and prosecutors must show evidence that a specific payment was tied to a specific action, something that pre-trial evidence did not show.
If convicted, Mendendez could face up to 15 years in prison.
6.) Menendez has called for the trial's change of schedule. Last Friday, Menendez asked a federal judge to have the trial work around his schedule so he can “participate in critical votes before the United States Senate” in September.
"As the recent vote on whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act demonstrated, the Senate is divided by razor-thin margins on consequential legislation, making Senator Menendez’s absence from any particular vote potentially determinative,” Menendez’s lawyers wrote in court papers, saying that members of Congress “have a constitutional right to be an active part of every minute of their trial, but they also have constitutional obligations to serve the people who elected them.”
Prosecutors called this a request for "special treatment" and said, "the political consequences of defendant Menendez’s trial or criminal conviction should not be considered in the courtroom."
7.) NJ Governor Chris Christie has come to Menendez's defense. In an interview with MSNBC's Morning Joe on Wednesday, Christie said Bob Menendez "deserves a presumption of innocence" and should have "an impartial trial before a jury of his peers."
Christie said Tuesday he would not appoint himself to replace Bob Menendez if he were to resign.
“I don’t see that happening,” Christie told FOX News host Neil Cavuto. “I really do believe that some of us are built for executive positions and some of us are built for legislative positions. I think I’m much more of an executive branch kind of guy.”