Menendez Trial: Prosecution Focuses On Port Security Contract

NEWARK – Sen. Bob Menendez returned from a spring 2012 vacation in the Dominican Republic “very concerned about drug flow and corruption there,” according to an email from Menendez’s office to a State Department official, testimony in Menendez’s corruption trial revealed today.

While prosecutors tried to highlight the Democratic senator’s interest in a Dominican port security contract where his friend Dr. Salomon Melgen stood to benefit, defense attorneys couched these concerns amid broader issues in the Carribbean and Latin America, some of which Menendez had been attentive toward for years.

With Menendez’s backing, Melgen secured a meeting with the deputy assistant secretary of State for International Naroctics and Law Enforcement Affairs in 2012. Todd Robinson, who served in the position at that time and is currently the US Ambassador to Guatemala, testified he had a nearly two hour meeting with Melgen where Melgen noted the senator’s interest in the issue.

“It was clear this was an important issue, and at the very least we were not to let it fall through the cracks,” Robinson testified.

Melgen was part-owner of ICCSI, a company which had secured an exclusive contract for X-ray screening of cargo containers going into an out of Dominican ports. The Dominican government had not been enforcing the contract, however, and Melgen wanted them to either start using his company or buy ICCSI out.

Prosecutors got Robinson to admit it was unlikely he would have met with someone who had simply cold-called his office, but listening to business concerns brought up by elected officials is nothing new.

“We get requests from the Hill on a fairly regular basis, usually at post, at the embassy in regards to complaints from American business of treatment in Country X,” Robinson said.

“How many of those complaints involve threats of Senate hearings?” government prosecutor Peter Koski asked.

“None that I know of,” Robinson said.

However, Robinson said he never met with Menendez or anyone from the senator’s office. And Menendez defense attorney Jenny Kramer brought up on cross-examination an email that showed Menendez’s concerns about how corruption in the Dominican Republic affected port security.

Prosecutors also brought in Customs and Border Patrol congressional liaison Stephanie Talton, who in January 2013 received an email from Menenedez’s office asking about a shipment of US-provided custom surveillance equipment purportedly on its way to the Dominican Republic.

“I found it to be odd, because it is somewhat unusual for a senator or member of Congress to ask us to stop doing our law enforcement mission,” Talton testified.

It turned out the rumor was false, and no screeners were on their way, she determined.

During cross-examination, Menendez attorney Raymond Brown asked Talton if Menendez’s office truly wanted the donation stopped or simply asked for more information.

“What I thought was odd was they were requesting a stop to the supposed order before a briefing,” Talton said.

But Brown pointed out portions of an October 2012 email CBP had sent as background. It mentioned “corrupt officials” trying to weaken port security, as well as the US government’s hope to reach a neutral decision in the ICCSI dispute. In the email, Brown showcased that corruption concerns with the Domincian government ran so deep, CBP considered dissolving joint operations in 2011 until things improved.

Prosecutors moved on campaign contributions to Menendez and the senator’s legal defense fund, with FBI Agent Alan Mohl taking the stand for the third time so far in the trial. Mohl testified about the Menendez campaign soliciting donations from the Melgen family before the trial broke for the weekend.

Mohl will return to the stand when the trial resumes Monday. Menendez quickly left his trial for Newark airport, where he will depart for Puerto Rico to view damage from Hurricane Maria there.

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