Jury selection began on Tuesday in the public corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and co-defendant Dr. Salomon Melgen in a Newark, New Jersey federal court room. The trial is currently scheduled to begin on September 6.
“A closed court proceeding interrupted jury selection Tuesday in the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, with attorneys for the New Jersey Democrat later saying he pleaded not guilty to a superseding indictment that was handed up last fall,” the Associated Press reported:
While the proceeding was routine, the exclusion of the public and media was not. Except in rare cases, such as when the identity of a government informant must be kept secret, defendants enter guilty or not guilty pleas in open court.
The judge didn’t immediately give an explanation for closing the courtroom.
Co-defendant Melgen, a Florida opthalmologist, was convicted on 67 felony counts of Medicare fraud in April for engaging in the same fraudulent billing practices which Menendez personally lobbied then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to pressure her department’s adjudicatory branch to authorize for Melgen in a 2012 meeting held on Capitol Hill.
Melgen was convicted for instances of fraudulent billing that occurred between 2008 and 2013.
Menendez lobbied Sebelius to allow Melgen to keep $8 million in money he had been paid by Medicare for bills he submitted between 2005 and 2008 for the same fraudulent billing practices. Sebelius refused to intervene in the adjudicatory process in that matter, and Melgen was required to pay back the $8 million he had received in overbilling for the earlier period.
In return for these and other favors, the federal government alleges, Melgen made over $750,000 in campaign donations to PACs and other campaign entities that were earmarked for Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, which he easily won. In addition, Melgen paid for an estimated $58,000 in air travel for Menendez from New Jersey and Washington, D.C. to the Dominican Republic and Florida. When these trip payments were discovered some time later, Menendez reimbursed Melgen.
Melgen’s sentencing hearing on the 67 felony counts of Medicare fraud–estimated to be as much as $105 million–was originally scheduled for August, but was suddenly and unexpectedly delayed until after the public corruption trial.
That delay sparked speculation that Melgen and his attorneys may be seeking to cut a deal with federal prosecutors to lessen his sentence in the Medicare fraud convictions in return for testimony against Senator Menendez in the upcoming public corruption trial. Under standard sentencing procedures, the 63-year-old Melgen currently faces anywhere from 25 years to life in prison.
Menendez’s defense attorney, Abbe Lowell, is one of the most respected and experienced white collar crime defense attorneys in the country.
A partner at the prestigious law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright, he successfully represented former Senator John Edwards (D-NC), a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 2004 and 2008 who was “accused of soliciting nearly $1 million from wealthy backers to finance a cover up of his illicit affair and illegitimate child during his 2008 bid for the White House.” Edwards was found not guilty by a North Carolina jury in 2012.
Most recently, Lowell was hired by President Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner to represent him in the ongoing Russian probe.
No one underestimates Lowell’s legal capabilities, but gaining a not guilty verdict in his current client’s public corruption case will be a tall order.
Senator Menendez is up for re-election in 2018, and has publicly stated he intends to vigorously campaign to return to the Senate.
In the event he is convicted, however, he will likely face calls for his expulsion from the Senate.
Under normal political circumstances, expulsion would be almost automatic, but the past two years have been anything but normal.
Partisan politics come into play as well, because outgoing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, is by law authorized to appoint a replacement for a U.S. Senator from New Jersey in the event of death or resignation. Christie’s term expires in January 2018, so a conviction of Menendez followed by an expulsion prior to January 2018 would give the current governor an opportunity to appoint a Republican to the Senate seat until the November 2018 general election.
But New Jersey will pick a new governor in November 2017 who will take office in January 2018. In the most recent polls, the Democratic nominee, Phil Murphy, leads the Republican nominee, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, by more than 20 points.
Much can happen between now and the end of the public corruption trial of Senator Menendez and Dr. Melgen, which could last into November, and possibly even December, barring any settlement.
Whatever verdict the jurors return, it will have a blockbuster impact on New Jersey politics either way.