A leaderless Newark, New Jersey United States attorney's
office kicked off its fall season on September 6
thwith 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
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
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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