Politics

Justice Dept. pushes back against Sen. Menendez's defense in corruption case

The Justice Department pushed back Monday against efforts by Sen. Bob Menendez to dismiss the corruption indictment against him, calling the case the result of an "exhaustive, focused and disciplined" investigation that spanned more than two years.

The new court filings from the government are the latest volley in a high-stakes, bitter court case involving the New Jersey Democrat and a wealthy Florida eye doctor accused of bribing him with campaign contributions and lavish gifts.

They represent the Justice Department's first response to an aggressive attack on the indictment made last month by the defense team, which submitted hundreds of pages of documents that sought dismissal of the charges and accused government prosecutors of misconduct.

In urging a judge to reject the defense motions, prosecutors said they had clear evidence of a straightforward bribery scheme in which Menendez accepted campaign contributions and trips to Paris and the Dominican Republican in exchange for performing political favors on Melgen's behalf. Melgen is charged in the same indictment.

"No ordinary constituent from New Jersey received the same treatment, and the quid pro quo outlined in the indictment is clear and unmistakable," government lawyers wrote.

Menendez and Melgen have attacked the indictment on several grounds. Their lawyers have argued that the gifts and contributions were tokens of a decades-long friendship and did not represent any effort to curry political influence, and that the indictment risked criminalizing routine interactions between politicians and their supporters.

They have also accused prosecutors of knowingly eliciting false grand jury testimony from an FBI agent, an allegation the Justice Department said Monday was baseless and irresponsible.

The agent's testimony centered on a critical meeting Menendez had with Kathleen Sebelius, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in which prosecutors say the senator sought to intervene on Melgen's behalf in a Medicare billing dispute worth millions of dollars.

Defense lawyers say the agent told the grand jury that it was "perfectly clear" that the meeting was about Melgen, but that the agent's own internal notes reveal Sebelius told investigators that "she could not recall what Menendez specifically wanted" or whether Melgen's name came up during the meeting.

But prosecutors said defense lawyers relied on "selective snippets," made "creative use of ellipses" in quoting witness testimony and ignored statements from other participants in the meeting that were incriminating of Menendez and Melgen.

In addition, the Justice Department also defended the early stages of its investigation, which it acknowledged grew out of an unproven accusation that Menendez and Melgen were having sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. Defense lawyers contend that the case should be dropped because the investigation began over false, salacious allegations that were never included in the indictment. Prosecutors said they had a duty to look into the matter.

They say the defense argument, if adopted, "would result in the dismissal of countless indictments brought around the country initiated by tips from a scorned lover, disgruntled employee, rival gang member, or cheated business partner."