NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A former staffer for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez testified Monday that the Democrat helped with the visa applications of friends of a wealthy doctor who faces bribery charges with him, while defense attorneys sought to show Menendez's actions were unremarkable and part of the duties of his office.
Under direct questioning from the government, former senior policy adviser Mark Lopes testified Menendez emailed him in 2008 authorizing a letter of support from Menendez to be sent to consular officials regarding the visa applications of two sisters from the Dominican Republic.
One of the emails sent around the time had a subject line that read: "Dr. Melgen's request."
One of the sisters was described by federal prosecutors as a girlfriend of Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend of Menendez's. The two men were indicted in 2015 and have pleaded not guilty to multiple fraud and bribery charges. Prosecutors said they orchestrated a scheme in which Melgen gave Menendez gifts and campaign donations in exchange for Menendez's political influence.
"We are preparing a general letter of support from you," Lopes emailed to Menendez and asked if it was OK to send it. "Yes, call if necessary," Menendez emailed back.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Raymond Brown, Lopes testified it wasn't out of the ordinary for Menendez or people in his office to contact officials in the Department of State over visa applications. He recalled the case of a Colombian family, also in 2008, in which Menendez called a U.S. ambassador in support of the family's application.
There was "nothing improper," Lopes testified, in Menendez's efforts on behalf of another friend of Melgen's, a Brazilian national characterized in the indictment as one of Melgen's girlfriends.
The indictment alleges that, in addition to the visas, Menendez lobbied government officials on behalf of Melgen in a Medicare billing dispute and a contract dispute involving a company Melgen owned that sought to provide port security equipment in the Dominican Republic.
Menendez and Melgen have contended in court filings, and their attorneys alleged in their opening statements last week, that the gifts were evidence of the pair's longtime friendship and mutual affection, not a corrupt agreement.
Prosecutors filed a motion with the judge Sunday night seeking to have him limit the amount of evidence the defense can introduce to try to show Menendez's actions alleged in the indictment were similar to others he took as part of his job.
Earlier Monday, a vice president for American Express testified Melgen used about 650,000 AmEx points to pay for a Paris hotel room for Menendez in 2010. Menendez had about 58,000 points in his AmEx account at the time, and prosecutors want to show he tapped his wealthy friend in order to stay in a $1,500-per-night hotel as part of the bribery scheme.
Defense attorneys have said Menendez planned to give Melgen the points back, but prosecutors introduced Menendez's AmEx bill to show that in 2013, he used nearly all of his 135,000 points to buy a barbecue grill.
The case 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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