NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy doctor charged with bribing him lurched forward in fits and starts Thursday, as the judge twice sent the jury out of the courtroom and chided prosecutors for focusing on “irrelevant” details about swanky hotels, limestone baths and rain showers.
U.S. District Judge William Walls’ admonitions came during the questioning of the prosecution’s first witness, an FBI agent summoned to authenticate emails between Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen about a trip to Paris taken by the New Jersey Democrat in 2010.
Melgen paid for Menendez’s $4,900, three-night stay with his American Express points — part of a scheme, prosecutors claim, in which Melgen showered gifts on Menendez to get Menendez to pressure government officials on behalf of Melgen’s business interests.
The government’s questioning sought to show that Menendez initially inquired about cheaper rooms, then asked Melgen to get him the more expensive room with the luxury features.
“I said before I’m not going to let this be a tabloid trial,” Walls said with the jury out, adding, “Who cares whether the senator opted for a more expensive room? What is the point to be made? I don’t think it’s a sin for him to want a limestone bath, per se, and if anyone’s ever been in a rain shower, he or she would appreciate one.”
Prosecutor J.P. Cooney told Walls the price of the room was “extraordinarily important to the defendant’s intent.”
Another issue arose at the end of the day that could play an important role in the trial: What is the definition of “constituent”?
Prosecutor Peter Koski mentioned several times during his opening statement Wednesday that Melgen lives in Florida while Menendez represents New Jersey, which he implied bolsters the government’s theory that Menendez went outside his normal duties to help someone who had bribed him.
In contrast, Melgen’s attorney, Kirk Ogrosky, told jurors in his opening statement Thursday that the actions of a U.S. senator can affect people across the country and that his constituents could live anywhere.
Walls asked both sides to submit written arguments on the matter.
Ogrosky also noted that Melgen and Menendez had bonded over their Hispanic heritage and were part of a “brotherhood” that sought to promote economic opportunity for Hispanics.
“This case is not only an attack on these two men, it’s an attack on that whole group,” he said.
The trial is recessed Friday and will resume with testimony Monday.
Melgen and Menendez spent time frequently at Melgen’s homes in Florida and the Dominican Republic, Ogrosky said in his opening statement, and Menendez often paid for his own flights to visit Melgen with family members.
“That’s a heck of a bribe,” Ogrosky told jurors. “‘I’ll bribe you, pay your own way.’ That’s baloney.”
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 Republican Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, Christie would pick Menendez’s successor. A Democrat has a large polling and financial advantage in November’s election to replace Christie.
The most serious charge Menendez and Melgen each face, honest services fraud, carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
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