Clashes over evidence dominate Menendez bribery trial

AP News
Posted: Sep 19, 2017 5:08 PM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Clashes over what evidence will be shown to the jury in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy friend dominated court proceedings again on Tuesday, as attorneys tangled over the prosecution's plan to show a CNN interview he did in early 2013, when rumors first surfaced about the two men.

In an unusual twist, defense attorneys argued that the jury should be allowed to hear in the CNN interview — and read in a press release from around the same time — references to rumors about Menendez consorting with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, where co-defendant Salomon Melgen owns a villa.

Those allegations were later discredited, and they aren't a part of the 2015 indictment of the two men. But attorney Abbe Lowell, representing Menendez, said they provide context for what Menendez was facing when he did the interview.

Prosecutors claimed that the interview, as well as other evidence, show the New Jersey Democrat trying to conceal the number of flights he took on a plane owned by Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist.

The two men are charged with a bribery scheme in which Menendez allegedly traded political influence for trips on Melgen's private jet and lavish accommodations in Paris and the Dominican Republic between 2006 and 2013.

Prosecutors spent part of Tuesday methodically going over which flights Menendez took, either alone or with a female companion, between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, with stops in Melgen's home state of Florida.

A previous witness had testified that Melgen spent about $8,000 to fly Menendez from Florida back to Washington, D.C., when Melgen's own plane was unavailable.

Menendez eventually paid back about $58,000 for some of the flights, but prosecutors charge that he took many more flights on Melgen's planes.

In the clip of the interview with CNN reporter Dana Bash, shown in the courtroom with the jury absent, Menendez decries "nameless, faceless individuals on a website who can drive that type of story into the mainstream" and adds, "all those smears are absolutely false."

The defense has asserted in past court filings that the government's entire investigation of Menendez was tainted because it arose from the bogus prostitution allegations. The government has said it looked into the rumors because they involved "serious and specific allegations into child prostitution."

After a lengthy debate Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Walls said there was "no way in God's green earth" he would allow the evidence in.

"I'm not going to let you get into a discussion about smears and right-wing activities, OK?" he told the defense.

The trial, which is in its third week, has been punctuated by numerous arguments over evidence and lines of questioning, with the jury excused each time.

Earlier Tuesday, Walls said he would allow the defense to present evidence of actions Menendez took that are similar to those that prompted his bribery trial but aren't considered criminal.

For example, attorneys want to show he helped people get visas as part of his job, to counter charges that he took extra measures to obtain visas for three of Melgen's alleged foreign girlfriends in exchange for bribes.

Prosecutors had sought to have most of the evidence excluded. Walls said he would allow it but would limit it as he saw fit.