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General News    H2'ed 9/7/17

Menendez Trial Begins with Ambitious Allegations

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A leaderless Newark, New Jersey United States attorney's office kicked off its fall season on September 6thwith the trial of US Senator Robert Menendez. Menendez, 63, is charged with accepting questionable campaign donations and gifts from co-defendant Salomon Melgen in exchange for lobbying on the wealthy Florida ophthalmologist's behalf.

Assistant United States Attorney Peter Koski delivered the government's opening statement. He opened by detailing Menendez's request for a Paris hotel room directed to Melgen. Koski took great pains to describe the opulence of the room requested by Menendez, claiming that the room required 650000 American Express mileage points and was "not just any hotel room." Koski claimed in his opening that over a seven year period, Menendez had received from Melgen numerous vacations, political contributions, and flights on Melgen's private jet. While lacking clear evidence of a quid pro quo, the government maintains that Menendez's official acts purportedly on Melgen's behalf constitute bribery. They repeatedly referred to Menendez as "Melgen's private senator." In support of this contention, the government presented an incriminating timeline of events.

The government pointed to Menendez's meetings with various federal officials, including an under-secretary of state, purportedly for the benefit of Melgen. The government claims that these meetings closely coincided with subsequent donations and gifts.

While a New Jersey jury may respond to allegations that a politician accepted contributions in exchange for political favors with a collective yawn, United States District Judge William Walls has a decidedly dimmer view. "We, the people of the United States, are sick and tired of political and public officials being on the take," said Walls in 2015, when he imposed a 70-month sentence on a New Jersey official who admitted stealing about $120,000.

Walls has even berated prosecutors for going too easy on defendants accused of public corruption. Conversely, Walls has been reticent to share his views on prosecutorial corruption.

How this case landed in Walls' courtroom raises fresh questions about the "randomness" of case assignments in Newark. Many court watchers have asserted that the purported random nature of judicial assignments in Newark is merely a polite veneer for a process completely controlled by prosecutors.

The Newark US attorney's office has long been rife with corruption. The office has been operating without a US attorney since the forced resignation of Paul Fishman. Fishman reportedly landed the position with the help of former Senator John Corzine who was reciprocating for the discreet manner in which Fishman handled a private legal matter for Corzine's then fiance'e.

Fishman succeeded Chris Christie who was given the job as US attorney as a reward for his prodigious fundraising on behalf of George W. Bush. This despite Christie's complete lack of prior experience in trying or prosecuting criminal cases. While US attorney, Christie was accused of leaking false and damaging information alleging corruption on the part of Menendez so as to hinder his chances of reelection in 2012.

The Newark office now awaits President Trump's appointment of a new head.

Publicity considerations have repeatedly eclipsed the purported mission statement of the federal prosecutors at the Newark office, and the trial of Senator Menendez is exactly the kind of event for which this office pines. By routinely placing career advancement over public safety, the Newark office has served its occupants well as a launching pad for those with political ambitions. Accordingly, a successful criminal prosecution of a sitting United States senator is a resume-making event.

Menendez's lead counsel, Abbe Lowell, is a highly experienced Washington, DC attorney who first rose to national prominence as a Democratic staff attorney during the Clinton impeachment.

Lowell's opening statement deftly responded to the government's most damning allegations. "Friendship cuts through a mountain of words and a mountain of evidence. Acting out of friendship is not a crime," Lowell stated to the jury.

Indeed, Lowell advised jurors that if they could not find evidence of bad intent in the actions taken by Menendez, they must acquit.

Lowell further undercut the government's argument by claiming that the friendship between the defendants spanned 25 years, markedly longer than the seven year period highlighted in the government's indictment.

To underscore this argument, Lowell pointed to the fact that if Menendez sought to corruptly intercede on his friend and codefendant's behalf, there were numerous opportunities to have done so in a much more meaningful fashion. Lowell described how a senator could introduce beneficial legislation, or attach an accommodating rider to otherwise unrelated legislation. The record, according to Lowell, shows no such acts.

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Barry Scott Sussman- Born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in Sociology. Graduated with a JD from the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law specializing in Federal Criminal Procedure and Federal Prosecutorial (more...)

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