NEWARK – The judge in Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial is weighing rejecting the legal theory underlying part of the government’s case, potentially throwing some of the charges against the senator into jeopardy.
Judge William Walls offered only one guarantee during hours of arguments on a motion to dismiss the case this afternoon: that a single charge of making false statements on Menendez’s Senate disclosure form will go to the jury.
Menendez listened intently throughout arguments and left court immediately after things wrapped up around 4:45 p.m. Dr. Salomon Melgen, Menendez’s friend and co-defendant who is accused of bribing the senator with private plane flights, Dominican vacations and a Paris luxury hotel stay, had little reaction.
At issue is the idea of a “stream of benefits” bribery scheme, where there is not necessarily a 1-to-1 correlation between a bribe and the official action taken by an elected official.
Prosecutors defended the idea, which lead Department of Justice prosecutor Peter Koski described as a type of a ledger with “things of value on one side, a pattern of official acts on the other.”
“Even under the stream of benefits bribery theory there must be some contemplated future action the public official agrees to take,” Koski said.
Koski said that rejecting the “stream of benefits” theory could embolden officials who are so corrupt they take multiple bribes from numerous sources. If he strikes “stream of benefits” from the case, Walls would be the first judge in the nation to do so, and could deal a severe blow to a prosecution case that relies on when actions were taken related to gifts given as opposed to some kind of smoking gun.
The defense had sought to use the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in overturning the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to get a dismissal for the senator and his co-defendant. In McDonnell’s case, friend of the governor and his wife Johnnie R. Williams Sr. showered the couple with $177,000 worth of gifts while looking to promote his company’s tobacco-based supplement, Anatabloc.
McDonnell was convicted in 2014, but the conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court in 2016, in part because the justices ruled the governor had not made an actual decision to help Williams. The court agreed with McDonnell’s lawyers that setting up meetings for Williams with the governor’s staff or hosting hearings did not constitute an official act.
“There’s a difference between a person’s power and their authority,” Lowell said.
Walls disagreed and called the two words synonyms, adding that even though Menendez is a legislator, bureaucrats in the executive branch realize the import of a request by a United States Senator.
“You don’t have to be hit over the head by a 2×4 or a baseball bat,” Walls said, “that’s the reality of politics, and Washingtonian politics.”
Walls encouraged both defense and prosecution attorneys to send him further argument in writing. He promised a decision on what charges will stay and which charges will go on Monday, when jurors are set to return after a long weekend.
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