Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was the first U.S. Senator to stand trial for bribery and corruption charges in 36 years.
On August 30, Justice Department prosecutors filed a document in court as the trial began, outlining the evidence against Menendez receiving political bribes from Florida Optometrist Dr. Salomon Melgen. The list included lavish vacations, private jet excursions, and campaign donations, in exchange for favors ranging from lobbying on behalf of Dr. Melgen’s business interests to securing Visa’s for his foreign girlfriends after they were initially denied. Dr. Melgen was convicted earlier this year for Medicare fraud, but had his sentencing delayed until after Menendez’s trial.
Menendez was charged on 17 counts of bribery and for failing to disclose the gifts on his annual disclosure forms. On November 16, the federal judge presiding over the case declared a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict after a week of deliberations.
The trial lasted roughly 10 weeks, as Menendez’s attorneys tried to have the case dismissed on several grounds after spending over a year exhausting the appeal process to avoid a trial.
Menendez’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, gave his opening statement on September 6, 2017 in the trial, where he argued that Menendez and Melgen were friends, so the exchanges between them can be reduced to friendship rather than corruption and political bribes as the charges suggest they were. The federal judge denied Menendez’s argument to use the Supreme Court ruling that overturned former Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonell’s corruption conviction to have his trial thrown out.
Before attending the hearing, Menendez tried to portray himself as a fighter, claiming, “I’ve committed my entire adult life, since I was 19, fighting for the people of New Jersey.”
”Since well before a New Jersey grand jury returned the initial indictment in April 2015, the defendants have attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the investigation and resulting charges by repeatedly using public statements and court filings to promote unfounded claims that this case is the result of a global conspiracy led by Menendez’s political opponents,” the Justice Department claimed in a document outlining their evidence against Menendez.
In early November 2017, a juror from the trial, Evelyn Arroyo-Maultsby, was dismissed so she could go on a planned vacation to the Bahamas. She spoke with reporters, claiming that she and three other jurors out of the nine felt that Menendez was innocent of all charges. Arroyo spoke of infighting in jury deliberations, accusing her fellow jurors of bullying her out of deliberations.
The defense sought a mistrial after four jurors and three alternates told the judge they heard media reports over the weekend about Arroyo’s comments. After federal judge William Wall spoke personally with each of the jurors, he ruled against declaring a mistrial, and insisted the jury reset their deliberation.
“You are now a new jury. You are to disregard whatever you negotiated or deliberated on last week. You’re starting fresh,” he said. He dismissed the defense’s claims about the dismissed juror because her opinions represented their side. On November 13, the jurors sent Judge Walls a note telling him they were deadlocked on a decision. He sent them home to return on November 14 to continue deliberations. Because the jury failed to reach a verdict, a mistrial would was granted, at which point the government will either pursue a conviction in a new trial or decide not to pursue the case any further.
Though the charges have not removed Menendez from office or pushed him to resign, it will serve as political baggage for the Democratic Party desperately trying to rebrand themselves ahead of the 2018 Midterm elections, when Menendez is up for re-election.