WASHINGTON — The federal indictment against New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez turns in part on prosecutors’ ability to show that the lavish gifts and political favors at the center of the case amount to outright bribery rather than reflections of a decades-long friendship between the lawmaker and the donor.
That burden of proof is among the issues that make public corruption cases more complicated for the government than they would appear from a one-sided indictment.
“It relies very heavily on quid pro quo — giving this official action for that thing of value. It’s not a fuzzy relationship, it’s not an iffy relationship,” said Robert Walker, a former Justice Department corruption prosecutor who also served as chief counsel for the House and Senate ethics committees. “It can be difficult to prove quid pro quo.”
A second potential hurdle for prosecutors is a protection the Constitution gives members of Congress for their legislative acts.
An indictment issued Wednesday in Newark charges Menendez with accepting a series of gifts, including round-trip flights aboard a luxury jet and a Paris vacation, from Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor, political donor and friend of more than two decades. Prosecutors accuse Menendez, in exchange for gifts and campaign contributions, of acting to advance Melgen’s business interests, including intervening in a Medicare billing dispute worth millions of dollars.
Menendez pleaded not guilty in federal court Thursday to charges including bribery, conspiracy and making false statements. Melgen also pleaded not guilty.
The New Jersey Democrat had earlier defiantly asserted his innocence in a public appearance hours after the indictment, predicted he would be vindicated and said Justice Department prosecutors “don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption.”
Menendez lawyer Abbe Lowell picked up on that theme following Thursday’s arraignment. “Prosecutors at the Justice Department often get it wrong,” Lowell told reporters. “These charges are the latest instance of that.”
As the case moves forward, both sides are likely to present dramatically different portraits of the relationship between Melgen and Menendez.
In the government’s telling, the gifts were given with the corrupt intent to spur specific acts on Melgen’s behalf. But defense lawyers are likely to cast the gifts as tokens exchanged between men who’ve shared a close bond for 20 years. What prosecutors call unlawful favors will invariably be characterized by Menendez’s defense as actions that fall within a senator’s ordinary responsibilities and duties — and done for the right reasons.
“Because this was a real friendship and not a corrupt relationship — and because Senator Menendez’s actions were proper — this case too will become another of those mistaken cases that should have never been brought,” Lowell said.
The close relationship here stands apart from the one at the center of last year’s corruption case against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and wife Maureen, which involved a businessman who became intertwined with the couple only after they had entered the executive mansion.
“I suspect this will be a hard-fought argument on both sides — whether these gifts were the result of a close long-term family friendship” or something more nefarious, said Scott Fredericksen, a Washington defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
A separate looming legal issue is the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause, which protects elected officials from being questioned by prosecutors, among others, about their legislative work. The provision has been invoked with varying degrees of success by other members of Congress seeking protection from prosecution, or law enforcement searches, for their legislative acts.
But courts have historically understood the clause to shield members of Congress from legal scrutiny for votes and other core legislative acts.
Edward Loya, a Los Angeles defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said that despite the legal complexities inherent in public corruption cases, it might be hard for Menendez to convince a jury that the actions he took were part of the ordinary legislative process — or that he wasn’t “going out on a limb” for Melgen by contacting Cabinet secretaries and other agency heads on the doctor’s behalf, in certain instances.
“The official acts that Sen. Menendez engaged in don’t have a clear explanation other than his apparent interest in trying to help a personal friend who was providing him benefits and things of value,” added Loya, a former member of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, an anti-corruption unit that is handling the prosecution.
The Menendez case holds special significance for the anti-corruption prosecutors because it is the first against a sitting senator since the botched case against the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, which the Justice Department ultimately dismissed after admitting that it failed to turn over evidence. Since then, prosecutors lost their campaign corruption case against another Lowell client, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, but last year helped win convictions against the McDonnells.
Outside court Thursday, Lowell cited both the Stevens and Edwards cases as examples of Justice Department “mistakes” — a clear public salvo in what figures to be a high-stakes, high-profile legal fight.
“This is shaping up as a quite good battle,” Fredericksen said.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Sean Carlin in Newark contributed to this report.