Over the last two and a half months, New Jersey´s Democratic Party Senator Robert Menendez has faced a trial over federal bribery allegations involving alleged Medicare violations by one of his most affluent donors.
Now, after six days of deliberations, the jury has pronounced itself deadlocked and the proceedings have ended in mistrial. Although prosecutors will likely seek a retrial, the outcome is a hard blow for advocates of campaign financing transparency.
According to allegations, Menendez used his influence in Washington to help Salomon Melgen, a Florida-based ophthalmologist who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his political campaign.
Melgen had a long-standing Medicare billing dispute with the government amounting to $8.9 million. Prosecutors claim Menendez attempted to pressure several government officials to favor Melgen in the Medicare billing issue and in a contract involving port screening equipment to be used in the Dominican Republic.
In exchange for these favors, Menendez allegedly received not only cash for his campaign, but also luxury vacations and extensive use of Melgen´s private jet. Allegedly, the Senator purportedly also showed his gratitude by helping Melgen secure US visas for his foreign girlfriends.
Menendez was in dire need of an acquittal as he prepares to run for re-election in 2018 in a scenario where Democrats appear to be at a disadvantage. But the defense´s argument that Melgen´s gifts were genuine displays of friendship rather than bribes failed to convinced the jury.
The Senator´s legal representative said the two men were “like brothers” and referred to friendship over 80 times in his trial closing speech.
On the other hand, the prosecution referred to Menendez as Melgen´s “personal senator” who was available to him on a regular basis, for whatever the doctor required. Facing nearly 12 counts each, including bribery and conspiracy, if convicted both men could go to prison. For the charge of services fraud, Senator Menendez might be locked up for as long as two decades.
In a separate case, Melgen has been found guilty in a $105 million Medicare fraud case involving billings for medically unnecessary tests and procedures. The ophthalmologist, who is currently awaiting sentencing, could face several years in prison himself.
A descendant of Cuban immigrants, Menendez has spent the last two and a half years under indictment. He succeeded in raising over $2.5 million for his Senate campaign, a sizable portion of which prosecutors now claim was raised illegally.
It is rather extraordinary for a senator to be convicted of a crime. If Menendez is tried again and found guilty, he might become the first convicted senator since the assets concealment case against Republican Ted Stevens.
Note the mistrial in the case of Senator Menendez is not a finding of guilt and any charges relating to Senator Menendez are only allegations until proven. Salomon Melgen on the other hand has been adjudged guilty relating to Medicare fraud.
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