WASHINGTON — The first U.S. senator to face bribery charges in nearly four decades goes on trial Wednesday in a case that could affect the Senate’s partisan makeup and the fate of President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda.
Robert Menendez, a Democrat in his 12th year as a senator from New Jersey, is charged with using his influence to do favors for a Florida eye doctor accused of overbilling Medicare. In return, prosecutors say, the doctor treated Menendez to “a lavish lifestyle that included private jet rides and vacations in Paris and the Caribbean.”
Menendez has insisted that he was simply trying to help someone he’s known for years. “Prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” he said when the charges were filed in 2015.
The trial will also test what remains of federal corruption law after the U.S. Supreme Court weakened it last year. In throwing out the conviction of Robert McDonnell, a former Virginia governor accused of accepting bribes, the justices narrowed the definition of official bribery.
Prosecutors say the Florida doctor, Salomon Melgen, used his private jet to give Menendez 10 flights to and from the Dominican Republic, where Melgen owned a luxury resort and hosted the senator, all at no charge. In 2010, the government says, Melgen paid the bill when Menendez and a guest stayed in a suite at a five-star Paris hotel.
But prosecutors say Menendez didn’t report any of Melgen’s gifts on yearly financial disclosure reports.
The charges also say Melgen gave $20,000 to help Menendez pay legal expenses from a recall effort and contributed more than $750,000 to political entities supporting the senator’s re-election.
In return for these favors, according to the charges, Menendez personally and through members of his staff urged regulators at the Department of Health and Human Services to drop its claim that Melgen fraudulently overbilled Medicare by nearly $9 million.