The judge in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez on Monday declined to toss out charges against the senator, despite doubts about a legal concept at the heart of the prosecution's case.
After hearing six weeks of testimony and viewing dozens of emails and documents that prosecutors allege show Menendez schemed to help a wealthy friend in exchange for free plane rides and luxury hotel stays, U.S. District Judge William Walls said Monday he would not dismiss the indictment against the New Jersey Democrat.
At issue is a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and narrowed the definition of bribery. In recent months, it has led judges to throw out bribery convictions for three former public officials, including a U.S. congressman.
Walls acknowledged earlier this month that the effect McDonnell already has had on corruption prosecutions.
"I know the prosecution had a heyday before McDonnell, and now they have a doomsday after McDonnell," he said half-jokingly.
The indictment charged Menendez accepted the flights on Florida doctor Salomon Melgen's private plane and other gifts over a seven-year period in exchange for pressuring executive branch officials on behalf of Melgen in an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a contested contract for port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic.
Defense attorneys for Menendez and Melgen contended language in the McDonnell decision requires that an alleged bribe be given in exchange for an official taking an action —or agreeing to — on a specifically identified "question, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy."
Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell argued the prosecution used a "mix and match" strategy to pair up Melgen's gifts with actions Menendez took over the years, without establishing direct connections.
"They are one, two years apart," he said. "Sometimes the bribe is allegedly for something three months before."
In response, Justice Department attorney Peter Koski argued the Medicare dispute and the port contract were the "identified questions" and that a public official doesn't have to specify how he will perform his end of the bargain.
In a brief filed Saturday, prosecutors cited cases since the McDonnell ruling in which, they wrote, federal appeals courts have left the stream of benefits theory undisturbed.
Invalidating it, they wrote, would "jettison the vast majority of bribery prosecutions, and broadly legalize pay-to-play politics."