The judge for Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial refused to throw out the charges against him in light of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowing the definition of bribery, reports the Washington Times.
The decision was made by U.S. District Judge William Walls and was a major victory for federal prosecutors, who had warned that dismissing the charges would open the door wide open to other bribery cases.
The judge rejected the idea that Menendez didn’t meet the new definition of bribery contained in the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, that reversed the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonell. In recent months, McDonell’s ruling has allowed other judges to throw out bribery convictions of at least three other public officials.
Menendez is charged with accepting free flights on a private jet, luxury hotel stays and other gifts from the wealthy Florida eye doctor, Dr. Salmon Melgen, over a seven-year period.
In exchange for these luxury items, Menendez would pressure government officials on Melgen’s behalf over an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a contract to provide port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic.
The most serious charge that two face is honest services fraud, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Members of both of the defendants families took the stand. Menendez’s son, Robert Jr. and Melgen’s wife, testified about the close relationship between the two men. Defense attorneys are seeking to emphasize that Melgen’s gifts were an outgrowth of that friendship and not part of a bribery scheme.
“Last week, Walls appeared to cast doubt on the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory of bribery, which holds that each bribe in a series of them over time doesn’t necessarily have to be made with the intent of prompting a specific official action,’ reports the Washington Times.”
The defense attorneys instead argued that the McDonnell ruling said that a bribe must be given in exchange for a public official taking action, or agreeing to take action, on a specific matter. The defense attorneys accused the prosecution of using a “mix-and-match” strategy to pair up Melgen’s gifts between 2006 and 2013 with actions Menendez took during the same period, without establishing direct connections.
Walls instead cited a federal appeals court ruling, issued after McDonnell, that upheld the stream of benefits theory in cases where gifts flow to a public official “in exchange for a pattern of official action … on an as-needed basis.”
This kind of ruling is dangerous, and even the prosecutors said in court papers, that invalidating the theory would “jettison the vast majority of bribery prosecutions and broadly legalize pay-to-play politics.”