A Senate Democrat's Federal Corruption Trial Starts Next Week. Here's What You Need to Know.

Posted: Aug 31, 2017 2:45 PM

On September 6th, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez goes on trial for alleged corruption dating back more than a decade.  Prosecutors say Menendez abused his office and accepted bribes from a major Democratic donor -- a major Democratic donor, mind you, who was convicted on dozens of charges related to of a massive Medicare fraud scheme in April and is facing a lengthy prison sentence.  Now, accountability may soon arrive for his powerful alleged partner in crime.  Details from Politico

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez allegedly starting taking bribes from a wealthy donor shortly after he entered the Senate in 2006, federal prosecutors assert in a new document. Menendez's bribery and corruption trial is set to begin next week. In preparation for that, Justice Department prosecutors filed a new document Wednesday laying out their case against the New Jersey senator, as well as Dr. Salomon Melgen, his alleged co-conspirator. Melgen has already been convicted in a separate case of bilking Medicare but has not been sentenced yet. Menendez has denied all allegation of wrongdoing, and he has denied any talk of a plea deal with the Justice Department. The new documents lay out the roadmap for the government's case against Menendez. "The defendants’ bribery scheme began shortly after Menendez’s elevation to the Senate in 2006, when Melgen began a pattern of treating Menendez to weekend and weeklong getaways in the Dominican Republic that would continue for the next several years," prosecutors said in their new filing. "For the first four years of the corruption scheme, the all-expense paid trips Melgen provided often included free roundtrip flights on Melgen’s private jet for Menendez and his various guests. When the doctor’s private jet was unavailable, Melgen supplied equally luxurious travel for the Senator."

There was also a strong political component to all of this, of course.  And how did Menendez repay these "favors"? 

Melgen and his family members also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Menendez's campaign and a Democratic super PAC that supported his reelection bid. In return for Melgen's gifts and campaign , Menendez reportedly used his office to help the Florida doctor. "Although Menendez did not pay Melgen back for the lavish gifts in money, he did pay him back using the currency of his Senate office to take official action to benefit the South Florida doctor," prosecutors wrote. Email exchanges between the defendants, their agents, and officials from Executive Branch agencies will show Menendez’s considerable efforts to pressure the Executive Branch on Melgen’s behalf. And testimony from the agency officials over whom he exerted that pressure will illuminate the relentlessness of those efforts." Menendez intervened with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Melgen's behalf, as well as with the State Department, according to prosecutors. This include allegedly helped with visas for Melgen's girlfriends.

Donations and favors flowed to the Senator from the doctor, and in return, the allegedly Senator sought to help the doctor avoid deserved scrutiny for an elaborate and lucrative project of Medicare fraud -- in addition to sundry other favors, such as securing visas for the doctor's overseas mistresses.  Menendez's attorneys argue that the prosecution, initiated during the Obama administration, is political payback for the New Jerseyan bucking the former president on foreign policy issues such as the Iran nuclear deal and Obama's rapprochement with the Castro regime in Havana.  Nonsense, say prosecutors: "This case is about serious questions of fact and law related to the corruption of one of the highest elected offices in the United States government. It is not about anonymous tips, Cuba, Iran, party politics, or the political consequences of a conviction."  Speaking of those "political consequences," two points: First, the Justice Department says that former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid also lobbied on Melgen's behalf, highlighting the political and financial ties between the Nevadan and the convicted felon.  Reid has declined to comment.  

Second, what happens if Menendez is convicted?  Senate Democrats are remaining tight-lipped on the question, well aware that being down a vote in the upper chamber could have major policy ramifications on hotly-disputed legislation.  In a significant blow, the judge in the case already rejected the Senator's request to be able to return to Washington for votes during the trial after government attorneys argued that Menendez should not be permitted to continue to wield his power while on trial for serially abusing that power.  Looking ahead to the potential eventuality of a guilty verdict, Phil Kerpen runs through some relevant history and asks some pointed questions of Chuck Schumer's Democrats:

Menendez is innocent until proven guilty, but there is a strong likelihood that his upcoming trial will indeed prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Then what? If Menendez is convicted but refuses to resign, the Senate Ethics Committee should act as quickly as possible to recommend expulsion, and if necessary the full Senate should vote on expulsion. That course of action would be appropriate according to the standard set by the Democratic Senate Caucus itself as recently as 2008, when it issued a press release with the headline: “A Convicted Felon Is Not Going to Be Able to Serve in the United States Senate.” “And as precedent shows us,” Democratic Leader Harry Reid said, a convicted felon senator “will face an ethics committee investigation and expulsion, regardless of his appeals process.” “This is not a partisan issue,” Reid added. He was talking about Ted Stevens, a Republican, and to the credit of Republicans they strongly agreed he should resign or be expelled. But will Democrats change their tune if the felon senator is one of theirs? It’s hard to doubt that they will. If the trial takes about a month, which is typical in such cases, a verdict could come by late September or early October.  The Senate will be deep into appropriations, debt ceiling, tax reform, and possibly still health care.  The gubernatorial election in New Jersey will be about a month away – with inauguration to follow in January.  The temptation to stall will be irresistible to many ethically flexible Democrats. Senate expulsion requires a two thirds vote.

Will Democrats drag their feet on expulsion for purely partisan reasons? And will the national media cover the trial extensively? It's hard to argue that it's not "sexy" enough, given the nature of the salacious allegations involved: