The corruption trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez — allegedly bribed by wealthy friend and campaign donor Salomon Melgen for governmental favors — may begin next week, and it’s already causing friction now that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is shown to have played a part in helping Menendez to “amplify the pressure” on the Obama administration, the Justice Department said on Thursday.
A report in Bloomberg detailed the story, in which Menendez (D-N.J.) “enlisted” Reid in November 2011 to help pressure the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, to reverse its ruling that Melgen owed $8.9 million for overbilling Medicare. Melgen is a Florida eye doctor and close friend of Menendez’. Melgen is accused of bribing the senator with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and lavish trips in exchange for his help on government disputes.
Reid contacted a White House deputy chief of staff, prosecutors disclosed on Wednesday in a court filing. “At that time, the Majority Leader reached out to the White House Deputy Chief of Staff, informing her that Menendez was upset about how a Florida ophthalmologist was being treated by CMS and asking that she call the agency,” according to the 30-page filing.
But the staffer, who wasn’t identified, “demurred” after “recognizing the matter involved a dispute between a single doctor and an administrative agency,” according to prosecutors. The filing doesn’t offer further details about what Menendez allegedly asked Reid to do. Reid isn’t accused of wrongdoing in the case, noted Bloomberg.
The Bloomberg report went on to detail a strange turn of events in which defense lawyers for Menendez and Melgen complained that prosecutors filed a “lengthy, lurid and one-sided narrative of the case’’ that includes “new, irrelevant and inflammatory ‘facts.’’’
One of the jurors was excused for personal reasons, and the replacement “may be exposed to the fresh pretrial publicity” that is putting a kink in the case already since the new “Trial Brief’’ was admitted.
“With its unnecessary presentation, irrelevant to the actual legal issues in the ‘brief,’ the gratuitous filing will make it harder to fill the remaining jury spot,’’ wrote the lawyers, adding that they won’t offer a further response to the allegation until the trial.
Reid has not commented on the filing.
According to the Bloomberg report, Melgen was one of Reid’s donors, too. Prosecutors say Melgen gave $600,000 in 2012 to Majority PAC, a political action committee intended to expand the Democratic majority in the Senate. The money was earmarked for Menendez’s electoral race in 2012. Politico reported that in June 2012, Melgen flew Reid on his company’s private plane from Washington to Boston and back for a Senate Majority PAC event.
Though the alleged White House contact by Reid isn’t part of the charges against Menendez, prosecutors want the opportunity to tell jurors about it, because it proves that Menendez intended to pressure another official to perform an “official act.”
The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of official acts last year in setting aside the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. The high court said prosecutors must prove an official act involved a formal exercise of power and be “something specific and focused” pending before a public official.
The U.S. indictment against Menendez and Melgen details how Menendez and Reid met with Kathleen Sebelius, then-secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss policies that affected Melgen. That meeting, on Aug. 2, 2012, took place in Reid’s Capitol office, according to Wednesday’s filing, Bloomberg reports.
Claiming a close friendship for more than 20 years, Menendez and Melgen have pleaded not guilty and deny wrongdoing. They say that the $771,500 in contributions that Melgen gave to the senator’s defense fund and various campaign committees, as well as trips on private jets, were not part of a corrupt scheme.
The filing also revealed that Melgen, who was convicted earlier this year in a separate trial over health-care fraud, asked his friend, the senator’s help in getting visas for three of his girlfriends and pushing the Dominican Republic to honor a contract he held to provide security in that country’s ports, prosecutors said.
And then there are the luxury trips that Menendez is accused of taking on Melgen’s tab, including to a villa in the Dominican resort where Melgen has a “tranquil Caribbean enclave, venerated for its seclusion” that attracted “luminaries in sports, entertainment, and business, including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Richard Branson and Bill Gates,” prosecutors said.
Prosecutors attacked the heart of the defense’s argument that the two men had a longtime friendship that never became a corrupt pact.
“It is not uncommon for defendants to establish some evidence of friendship in bribery cases but still be found guilty,” according to the filing. “Just as genuine friendship, may underlie a business arrangement, it should come as no surprise that friendship may very well form the foundation of a corrupt endeavor.”
The case is U.S. v. Menendez, 15-cr-00155, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).