Federal prosecutors focus on Robert Menendez's statements about paid trips

NEWARK - Federal prosecutors started Wednesday's proceedings in the bribery trial of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., by attempting to use the politician's own words against him.

The jury saw a 2013 interview clip and statement in which Menendez accepted responsibility for waiting more than two years to reimburse co-defendant Salomon Melgen $58,500 for trips on Melgen's private plane.

"The bottom line is, when it came to my attention, I paid for it," Menendez told a CNN interviewer.

Menendez's statement about the trips, which came out a few days before the interview, asserted that he had traveled on Melgen's planes only three times and had properly reimbursed his friend for all of those flights.

At the time, Menendez was trying to fend off media scrutiny of his relationship with Melgen. Now the stakes are much higher, with prosecutors seeking to show that Menendez criminally concealed many other flights and gifts he received from the wealthy Florida ophthalmologist.

The prosecution has spent the better part of the first three weeks of the trial attempting to show Melgen lavished Menendez with gifts and flew him to the Dominican Republic and back on a frequent basis, either on his own jets or on chartered or commercial flights. The government case is that Melgen bribed Menendez in exchange for government favors, while the senator argues he was simply a close friend of the doctor.

With FBI agent Alan Mohl on the stand on Wednesday, prosecutor Monique Abrishami discussed Senate financial disclosure forms showing that Menendez didn't list a single gift from Melgen.

Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell countered by asking Mohl to read portions of the forms related to knowingly falsifying information and disclosure exemption rules.

Abrishami objected that Lowell was trying to confuse jurors with his questions.

"That's not a sin in our profession," U.S. District Judge William Walls said outside the presence of the jury.

Lowell said prosecutors and the FBI had an extensive amount of time and resources to reconstruct Menendez's travels over the years and questioned why the government wasn't talking about Menendez's trips to Melgen's home in the Dominican Republic in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Mohl said the FBI didn't look at travel records going back that far because Melgen didn't own a private jet until later in the 2000s.

The defense is trying to establish that Menendez paid his own way on some or all of his trips and that he only became a frequent guest at Melgen's villa after the two became close friends.

With the jury out of the courtroom, Walls said, "Friendship can be contaminated by corruption. It can also serve as the camouflage for crime."

Lowell on Wednesday went through every stamp in Menendez's passport to illustrate that the New Jersey Democrat went from making occasional trips to the Dominican Republic to going as many as five times a year starting in 2008. In total, Menendez traveled 20 times to the Caribbean island between 2006 and 2013. The Justice Department cited six of those trips in its indictment.

Menendez approached CNN reporters during a break in the trial and turned around to blow an air kiss to his daughter as she left the courtroom.

Asked on Wednesday afternoon how he felt the trial was going, Lowell said, "There are many innings in a ballgame. It doesn't matter what the score is in the third inning."

Prosecutors declined to comment.


Washington Post News Service (DC)

9/20/2017 5:10:32 PM Central Daylight Time

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