Prosecution rests in Sen. Bob Menendez corruption trial

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Sen. Bob Menendez

Prosecutors rested their federal corruption case against Sen. Bob Menendez Wednesday, capping off weeks of a trial that could determine the political future of the New Jersey Democrat.

Over 18 days of testimony from 35 witnesses, prosecutors have tried to establish a “quid pro quo” bribery theory that they set forth during open arguments.

“This case is about a corrupt politician who sold his Senate office for a life of luxury he couldn’t afford,” said prosecutor Peter Koski. “And a greedy doctor who put that politician on his payroll for when he needed the services of a United States senator.”

Menendez and his co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, deny the charges and say prosecutors have wrongly twisted a 25-year friendship into a federal crime.

“It’s a story of a lifetime of service done honorably, hard work and sacrifice and a commitment to the people of New Jersey and a long time friendship with Dr. Melgen,” Menendez told reporters walking into court Wednesday.

Menendez has not said he would resign if convicted and insisted his poll numbers “will rise” if he’s acquitted.

“I have no intention of being anything but exonerated,” he told CNN last week. “So therefore, I’m not contemplating anything but reelection next year.”

Menendez’s defense attorney Abbe Lowell told Judge William Walls he will make a formal motion for judgment of acquittal on behalf of Menendez. Walls indicated he’s willing to hear the attorneys argue it Wednesday. This is a motion allowed under the federal rules of evidence when the defense believes the prosecution has not met its burden of proof.

The heart of the Justice Department’s case rests on accusations that Menendez accepted political contributions, free rides on private jets and a swanky hotel suite in Paris from Melgen in exchange for agreeing to pressure other high-level federal officials in the executive branch to help resolve Melgen’s business problems — “official acts” prosecutors claim put Menendez on the hook under federal bribery law.

Over the past week, prosecutors have specifically tried to focus on the timeline of $600,000 donations Melgen made to a Democratic super PAC, earmarked for the state of New Jersey, in 2012 during the time witnesses say and emails show Menendez tried to help the doctor resolve a multimillion-dollar billing dispute with Medicare in Melgen’s favor.

The jury also saw email correspondence from May 2012 showing Melgen’s representative agreeing to donate $60,000 to Menendez’s legal defense fund and the New Jersey Democratic State Committee — the same day that Menendez requested a meeting with a high-ranking official at the State Department to discuss a port security issues in the Dominican Republic.

Melgen had acquired a contract with the government in the Dominican Republic for screening cargo at the island’s ports, but the agreement had turned sour and prosecutors have tried to convince jurors that Menendez sought to influence others to resolve the dispute Melgen’s favor.

The defense team has tried to illustrate through cross-examination of several witnesses that Menendez was legitimately concerned about the fairness of Medicare’s billing practices, security of cargo entering the US and preventing drug smuggling at ports, and never hid his friendship with Melgen.

Legal experts say proving “corrupt intent” remains the major obstacle for prosecutors in this case, especially if the defense offers a persuasive counter-narrative for the jury to believe Menendez genuinely acted out of broader policy concerns, not because Melgen paid him off.

As Columbia Law School Professor Richard Briffault explained in an interview with CNN, the more the defense team convinces the jury that Menendez acted because he thought something was a “good idea” rather than doing it because there was a “deal” with Melgen, the harder it will be for the jury to convict.

By Laura Jarrett and Sarah Jorgensen, CNN