U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez is a longtime friend of the Florida eye doctor with whom he's on trial, and the government's fraud and bribery case against them is built on assumptions, the doctor's attorney said Thursday in his opening statement.
The government alleges trips paid for by Salomon Melgen, and campaign contributions he made to Menendez, were to get the New Jersey Democrat to use his influence to help Melgen's business interests.
But attorney Kirk Ogrosky said that Melgen and Menendez spent time frequently at Melgen's homes in Florida and the Dominican Republic and that Menendez often paid for his own flights to visit Melgen with family members.
"That's a heck of a bribe," he told jurors. "'I'll bribe you, pay your own way.' That's baloney."
Ogrosky also said Melgen didn't get any benefit from Menendez's alleged attempts to pressure government officials on his behalf.
Menendez's attorney Abbe Lowell said Wednesday in his opening statement that the two men have been friends since the early 1990s and that "acting out of friendship is not a crime."
How a jury tackles the question of "why?" and not "what?" could hold the key to the trial.
Menendez can't be found guilty, Lowell said, unless jurors conclude that his intent was corrupt and that there was a bribery arrangement. The evidence won't show that, he said.
"This case isn't about what happened, it's about why it happened," Lowell said.
The government painted a different picture in its opening statement. Justice Department attorney Peter Koski described Menendez pressuring government officials to help Melgen with securing visas for his foreign girlfriends and intervening in a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican Republic and a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute.
Among the gifts prosecutors say Melgen gave Menendez were flights on Melgen's private jet, vacations at Melgen's private villa in the Dominican Republic frequented by celebrities like Beyonce and Jay Z, and a three-night stay at a luxury Paris hotel valued at nearly $5,000. Melgen also contributed more than $700,000 to Menendez's legal defense fund and to entities that supported Menendez's campaigns.
"He went to bat when Dr. Melgen asked, and Dr. Melgen asked frequently," Koski said. "There's no friendship exception to bribery. There's no friendship exception to breaking the law."
Menendez and Melgen were indicted in 2015 and face multiple fraud and bribery charges in a case that could threaten Menendez's political career and potentially alter the makeup of a deeply divided U.S. Senate if he's convicted.
If he is expelled or steps down before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican would pick Menendez's successor. A Democrat has a large polling and financial advantage in November's election to replace Christie.
Menendez said before entering the courthouse on Wednesday: "Not once have I dishonored my public office."
Menendez has kept up a busy public appearance schedule while under indictment, and that didn't change Wednesday. After court adjourned, Menendez attended a rally of about 100 people outside a federal immigration building next to the courthouse to protest President Donald Trump's decision to end deportation protection for young immigrants living in the country illegally.
"We can keep the dream alive," he told the crowd through a megaphone. "You are not alone."
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