MENENDEZ TRIAL: Judge Walls Tongue Lashes the Lawyers

NEWARK – The federal judge presiding over Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial sent jurors home half an hour early this afternoon so he could once again lecture attorneys for creating a “mini-trial” within the case with an “incessant review of technical terms and policies” of Medicare billing.

Judge William Walls’ lecture was mostly directed at the defense, which tried to show Menendez intervened in his friend and co-defendant Dr. Salomon Melgen’s $8.9 million Medicare fraud case because he was concerned about contradictory Medicare billing policy. But for Walls, the efforts to recast Medicare and Big Pharma as the villains in the trial amounted to the title of what he has said is his favorite movie: “A Bridge Too Far.”

Menendez
Menendez

“The actual issue is the source of bribery, which the government is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, obviously,” Walls said.

“To have another trial within a trial, I’m not up for it,” Walls said later.

Walls noted he had to warn lawyers away from going too deep into the Medicare fraud during their cross-examination on three separate instances the previous week.

“And unfortunately, this is not (that) trial, and this is the fourth time I’m telling you this,” he said. “And that’s the way it’s going to be.”

As usual, Walls’ statements were directed towards both the defense and the prosecution, but it was Melgen’s lawyer Kirk Ogrosky’s cross-examination which was the ignition for the rebuke.

On a day that saw testimony focused on an irate Menendez hanging up the phone on a Medicare official and chastising a Cabinet secretary, Ogrosky said it was relevant for the jury to consider that Menendez’s anger might have been spurred by the unfair billing standards and not bribery. But even Ogrosky said he did not want to go too far.

“I agree with you, I do not want to try the underlying case,” said Ogrosky, who was Melgen’s attorney for the Medicare fraud case tried in Florida, and ultimately on the losing side.

The judge did not reserve criticism for the defense alone. Walls noted that both sides had witnesses confirm Medicare does not make medical decisions, only billing ones. The judge even mocked both the defense and prosecution for intoning the question so solemnly.

“It’s like I’m listening to Charles Laughton (pictured),” Walls said of the long-dead actor known for his dramatic voice.

Earlier in the day, the defense dove into a procession of campaign contributions prosecutors said were bribes from Melgen to Menendez.

Though Menendez was charged with accepting a $20,000 donation from Melgen to the New Jersey Democratic state Committee in May 2012, an identical donation in June 2006 was not charged. Likewise, prosecutors made much of a timeline that showed Menendez’s two meetings with Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield came on the day that 2012 donation was made, and on a day in September 2011 that Melgen donated $20,000 to a separate legal defense fund.

But Menendez’s attorney Abbe Lowell pointed out that the government included the 2012 donation in their indictment of the senator, but left out the contribution from 2011. He asked FBI Agent Alan Mohl, who was on the witness stand this morning, about the difference.

“The dates on the documents are the dates on the documents,” Mohl said.

“So, you picked: one was the bribe, one is not?” Lowell asked.

“One is charged, one is not,” Mohl said.

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