NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – A judge is expected to rule this week on whether the corruption case against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez should be moved from New Jersey to Washington, an issue that has sharply divided the two sides at the outset of what is expected to be a contentious prelude to a trial.
Attorneys are scheduled to argue before U.S. District Judge William Walls on Tuesday in Newark. A trial is tentatively scheduled for mid-October, though Menendez's attorneys are expected to file multiple motions to dismiss the charges that could force delays.
Menendez is charged with accepting gifts and donations totaling about $1 million from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for political favors. The gifts included flights aboard a luxury jet and a Paris vacation. Menendez has said he accepted gifts from Melgen because the two have been close friends for years.
Menendez's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, filed a motion last month to have the trial moved to Washington for a host of reasons, including that holding it in New Jersey would cause undue disruption to Menendez's work in the Senate. The Justice Department has opposed the motion.
Though Menendez's favorability numbers in New Jersey were higher than Gov. Chris Christie's in a recent poll even after his indictment was announced, moving the trial could have benefits for the defense, according to one expert.
"If a juror in New Jersey has elected someone to office and that person is alleged to have engaged in wrongdoing, that juror is probably going to look less favorably on it," said Stan Twardy, a former U.S. attorney for Connecticut who now works in white-collar defense. "In D.C., jurors are not beholden to Menendez and they're accustomed to politicians and to the mudslinging that takes place. They may see this as, 'Hey this is politics as usual' rather than a violation of the public trust."
Lowell declined to comment on the issue last week, and a Justice Department spokesman didn't return an email seeking comment. But the filings in the case show neither side mincing words.
Lowell, responding to the government's opposition to the venue change, referred to the "disingenuousness that pervades" the government's position and characterized part of their arguments as "grasping at straws." He also insinuated that the Justice Department may have been behind leaks of information before Menendez's May 1 indictment that were "intended to create a circus in the Senator's home state."
Prosecutors wrote that "it is absurd to suggest that a Senator from New Jersey cannot perform his job as a Senator while physically present in the State of New Jersey, and the United States Senate will continue to function if the defendants are tried in New Jersey instead of Washington, D.C. This is another example of defendant Menendez asking this Court for special treatment because of his status as a United States Senator."
Both sides cite previous prosecutions of Congressmen to buttress their arguments. The government mentioned several whose cases were tried in their home state, including former New Jersey Sen. Harrison Williams, convicted in the 1980s Abscam sting, and, more recently, New York Rep. Michael Grimm. Menendez's lawyers refer to Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, Idaho Rep. George Hansen and others whose cases were prosecuted in Washington.
The centerpiece of Menendez's argument, however, is the case of late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, whose 2008 trial was held in Washington after the Justice Department opposed Stevens' attempt to move it to Alaska.
In his brief, Lowell accused the government of asking Judge Walls to "ignore all of its prior arguments for why such cases should be tried in Washington, D.C." because the same arm of the Justice Department that is prosecuting Menendez argued that Stevens should be tried in Washington because, among other reasons, it would allow him to have close contact with his Senate office.
Changes of venue are fairly uncommon, but the defense's filings mention two cases in which Judge Walls ordered trials moved: a money laundering case that was switched to Puerto Rico in 2008 and a securities fraud case moved to Connecticut in 2002.