No New Trial For Menendez in Graft Case
Posted January 31, 2018 10:23 p.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2018 10:31 p.m. EST
The Department of Justice on Wednesday dismissed all the remaining charges against Sen. Robert Menendez, a decision that underscores how a 2016 Supreme Court ruling has significantly raised the bar for prosecutors who try to pursue corruption cases against elected officials.
The motion to dismiss comes less than two weeks after prosecutors said they were intent on retrying Menendez, D-N.J., and it allows him to run for re-election without having to face a second trial.
The Justice Department on Wednesday cited last week’s decision by Judge William H. Walls to throw out several charges the senator had faced, including bribery counts stemming from accusations that Menendez lobbied on behalf of a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for political donations. All charges against the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were also dismissed.
“Given the impact of the court’s Jan. 24 order on the charges and the evidence admissible in a retrial, the United States has determined that it will not retry the defendants on the remaining charges,” said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declining to provide any more details about the agency’s rationale.
The unraveling of the case against Menendez is the latest example of how difficult it has become to win public corruption cases after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the conviction of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who had been accused of accepting luxury items, loans and vacations in exchange for helping a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
That decision drastically limited the kinds of official acts performed by lawmakers that can constitute bribery or corruption, with the court ruling that only specific actions could be deemed to cross a legal line.
The definition of an official act loomed over Menendez’s first trial and Walls referred repeatedly to the McDonnell ruling throughout the case. The trial ended in a hung jury in November with the majority of jurors supporting acquittal. Last week, Walls dismissed seven of the 18 charges that Menendez and Melgen faced.
“This DOJ action seems to speak volumes about the difficulty DOJ confronts when seeking to prove corruption,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. He added that the “motion today may make the initial decision to retry seem more political now.”
Menendez had claimed vindication after the mistrial and Wednesday he was quick to celebrate the end of the case.
“From the very beginning, I never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail,” he said in a statement. “I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to re-evaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion.”
The initial indictment against Menendez was brought in 2015, well before the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision in 2016. Since then, political corruption cases against two of New York state’s major power brokers, Dean G. Skelos, former Senate majority leader, and Sheldon Silver, former speaker of the Assembly, were both overturned by judges who cited the McDonnell decision.
In seeking to press their case against Menendez, prosecutors not only would have had to likely address the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they would have been armed with a smaller trove of evidence given the reduced number of charges, a combination that seems to have led to the decision not to move forward.
“To me, it was an overall evaluation of what’s left. Can we get some of these key pieces of remaining evidence in?” said Rebecca Monck Ricigliano, a former federal prosecutor. “And then, is it going to be enough to meet this heightened standard?”
Despite the jury’s inability to reach a verdict in November, Menendez emerged politically wounded. Polls immediately after the mistrial showed a majority of voters believed that he should not run in November. But he enjoyed the support of nearly every key Democratic leader in the state, including Gov. Philip D. Murphy, who on Wednesday said that “the notion to have two extraordinary senators in this state, unencumbered, 1,000 percent focused on pushing forth the interest of the 9 million folks who call New Jersey home is a new and great day.”
Menendez now enjoys a clearer path to victory in the Democratic primary and his campaign for a third term in the Senate. “Sen. Menendez is looking forward to running a strong campaign and onto victory in November, fighting for the people of New Jersey against Donald Trump’s failed policies,” said Michael Soliman, a top political adviser to Menendez. Having started his career in New Jersey politics at age 20 on the Union City school board, Menendez methodically worked his way up the state’s political ladder — mayor, assemblyman, state senator and congressman — before reaching the U.S. Senate in 2005. And in a state with a long and deep history of political back scratching, accusations of wrongdoing dogged him for years before he was indicted three years ago along with his longtime friend, Melgen.
The decision by the Justice Department is a relief for Menendez and Democratic Party leaders who were facing the prospect of having to spend resources to defend a reliably blue state in a midterm election in which 10 Democratic senators are fighting to keep seats in states where Trump won.
It is also welcome news to other Democratic candidates in New Jersey, who feared that having Menendez under indictment at the top of the ticket could dampen turnout or enthusiasm as the party seeks to pick up as many as four seats as part of a national effort to win back control of the House.
After Menendez’s first trial ended, one juror told reporters that the panel had been deadlocked 10-2 in favor of a not-guilty verdict. Menendez had been charged with using the power of his office to do favors for Melgen in exchange for lavish gifts, trips on a private plane and political contributions.
Despite Menendez’s legal victory, Republicans said they would not back down from their efforts to target the incumbent senator. Robert Hugin, a pharmaceutical executive with ties to former Gov. Chris Christie, is exploring a general election challenge and could tap his substantial personal wealth to fund a campaign.
“New Jersey voters will continue to be reminded of Menendez’s dishonest schemes as the election approaches in November,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The decision to drop the charges caught many by surprise, including lawyers for Menendez and Melgen. On Wednesday, they had been gathered at the federal courthouse for a meeting on the case when Peter Koski, the lead prosecutor, approached them and told them the news.
“We asked him to repeat it,” said Raymond Brown, one of Menendez’s lawyers. “It was the last thing we expected to hear.”
The defense lawyers did not ask what prompted the change of heart.
“There’s an old adage in the law that he who stands well stands silent,” Brown said. “We did not inquire to the reason. We embraced the result.”