A federal judge has denied Sen. Bob Menendez’s "unique" request to schedule his upcoming corruption trial around key Senate votes, telling the Democratic lawmaker he is no more special than “the radio repairman, the cab driver and the businessman.”
The ruling virtually assures the trial will kick off next week in Newark as scheduled, even as Congress returns from recess.
Federal prosecutors have previewed an aggressive bribery case against the New Jersey senator, claiming he had a “corrupt pact” with a wealthy doctor who rewarded him with private plane flights, Caribbean vacations and campaign donations.
U.S. District Court Judge William H. Walls, in his Thursday ruling, chastised the senator's legal team for asking the court to allow schedule changes when there are “critical” votes in the Senate.
“The court will not serve as concierge to any party or lawyer,” Walls wrote. “Defendant Menendez claims that he is in a ‘unique situation’ because his voting duties are ‘on a schedule not of his own making.’ But so are the duties of the radio repairman, the cab driver, and the businessman. Yet none would claim the right to dictate the schedule of their own criminal trial.”
The Justice Department had opposed Menendez's request for "special treatment."
Walls, appointed to the bench by former President Bill Clinton, said Menendez, like any defendant, could choose not to be present during the trial. But he accused the senator of seeking flexibility so he can impress the jury.
“The court suspects that the trial strategy behind this motion, if granted, would be to impress the jurors with the public importance of the defendant senator and his duties,” Walls said. “No other plausible reason comes to mind.”
'The court suspects that the trial strategy behind this motion, if granted, would be to impress the jurors with the public importance of the defendant senator and his duties.'
In a trial that could have significant political ramifications in Washington, Menendez is accused of using his Senate seat to advance the interests of a doctor named Salomon Melgen.
Ahead of Wednesday’s opening arguments, the Department of Justice previewed its bribery case against Menendez and Melgen.
In a 30-page brief filed earlier this week, prosecutors accused them of “a corrupt pact spanning seven years, in which Melgen showered many more things of value on the New Jersey senator than just flights on a private jet, and Menendez reciprocated with official action advancing the South Florida eye doctor’s personal whims and business interests.”
In a new development, prosecutors also revealed that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was “enlisted” by Menendez in 2011 to advocate for Melgen in an ongoing dispute the doctor had with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The documents say Reid reached out to the White House deputy chief of staff about Menendez being “upset about how a Florida ophthalmologist was being treated” by CMS. But prosecutors said the White House aide demurred because it involved a “dispute between a single doctor and an administrative agency, not a policy matter.”
'...a corrupt pact spanning seven years, in which Melgen showered many more things of value on the New Jersey senator than just flights on a private jet...'
The documents detail years of Melgen treating Menendez to lavish vacations.
“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 week-long getaways in the Dominican Republic that would continue for the next several years,” the prosecutors said.
Oftentimes, the trips to Melgen’s villa at Casa de Campo included free roundtrip flights on Melgen’s private jet for Menendez and his various guests, they said.
Prosecutors said the senator tried to conceal the trips.
“Menendez enjoyed these flights and vacations free of charge,” they said. “But, in a scheme to hide the trips from public view and keep the corrupt pact secret, Menendez mentioned nothing of the gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms.”
Prosecutors argue Menendez paid Melgen back by using his position as senator to “take official action” to benefit the South Florida doctor.
“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,” they said.
Among actions alleged by prosecutors: Menendez helped Melgen obtain visas for foreign girlfriends to visit the United States; Menendez got involved when Melgen purchased a cargo screening contract in the Dominican Republic; Menendez advocated on Melgen’s behalf during his dispute with Medicare over his billing practices.
Both Menendez and Melgen have denied the accusations.
Melgen has since been convicted of Medicare fraud. But prosecutors said Menendez worked to help the doctor when Medicare asked him to repay Medicare $8.9 million in overbillings between 2007 and 2008. At one point, Menendez arranged a call with CMS’s Director of the Center for Medicare about the issue, the documents say.
On Wednesday, Menendez attorney Raymond Brown protested the Department of Justice’s brief detailing the allegations.
In a letter to the judge, Brown wrote that the document seems “designed solely to generate adverse pretrial publicity for the defendants, giving the media a rhetorically florid preview of the prosecutors’ opening argument.”
Wednesday's trial could also have damaging consequences for Democrats, whether or not Menendez is convicted.
The timing of the trial falls as Congress returns from the August recess and Republicans prepare to vote on President Trump’s legislative agenda -- potentially covering everything from tax reform to health care to the budget and debt ceiling.
Neither party can afford to lose a single member from the Senate floor. Republicans hold a slim 52-48 majority, and it’s possible the absence of a single reliable Democratic vote could tip the balance on key votes this fall, including possibly another attempt at repealing former President Barack Obama’s health care law.
But there's more at stake in the Menendez case than this fall's votes.
Republicans are salivating over the prospect of a more lasting political consequence should Menendez be convicted and should he leave Congress in the next few months: New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie would name his replacement, meaning the GOP could pick up another vote in the Senate.
Fox News' Kathleen Foster contributed to this report.