By Daniel Kelley
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The U.S. Constitution protects Sen. Robert Menendez from being prosecuted on bribery charges for talks he held with government officials on behalf of a friend who gave him gifts valued at $1 million, the New Jersey Democrat's lawyers argued on Monday.
The arguments came before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the corruption case against Menendez, who stepped down as the ranking member of the powerful U.S. Foreign Relations Committee when he was indicted in April 2015.
Federal prosecutors charge that he accepted lavish stays at a Caribbean villa, a luxurious visit to a Paris hotel and flights on private jets from Florida ophthalmologist and businessman Solomon Melgen, a longtime friend.
Menendez interceded on Melgen’s behalf in an $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, and in a dispute with the government of the Dominican Republic over a port security contract held by one of Melgen’s companies, prosecutors say.
The hearing on Monday involved an appeal of an earlier ruling dismissing a motion by Menendez’s lawyers to have the case thrown out before it goes to trial. They argued that the discussions with high-level officials centered on government policies rather than Melgen himself.
At the time of his indictment, Menendez was the ranking member of the powerful U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, a post that he stepped down from while the charges are pending.
“You have to look at what happened in the room,” defense attorney Abbe Lowell told the three-judge panel hearing the case. “If you look at what happened in the room, the record reflects that there were high level policy discussions occurring.”
The case highlights a seldom-discussed provision of the U.S. Constitution known as the “speech or debate” clause, which gives members of Congress broad protections against prosecution for actions they take in their capacity as legislators.
The clause was designed to prevent the executive branch from intimidating members of Congress for legislative actions, but it is commonly cited by the legal teams of members of Congress when they run afoul of U.S. corruption laws.
But Circuit Judge Thomas B. Ambro pointed out that not everything a member of Congress does is protected by the clause.
“It looks like he’s doing constituent services, and that doesn’t get you the shield of the speech and debate clause,” Ambro said.
Prosecutors argued that the justices should look at the circumstances surrounding the talks Menendez held with government officials.
Peter Koski, the deputy chief of the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, pointed to emails between Menendez and his chief of staff in which they discuss whether a meeting with then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would get Melgen’s hopes up.
“The only way Melgen’s expectations would be raised is if that meeting were about him,” Koski said.
Melgen and Menendez have pleaded not guilty, and have challenged the charges against them.
In September, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Walls dismissed some of the charges against the men related to allegations that Melgen passed along $40,000 in bribes with contributions through Menendez’s legal defense fund.
(Editing By Frank McGurty and Andrew Hay)