Jury selection for senator’s trial underway
A closed court proceeding interrupted jury selection Tuesday in the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., with his attorneys later saying he pleaded not guilty to a superseding indictment that was handed up last fall.
Menendez’s co-defendant, Florida ophthalmologist and political contributor Salomon Melgen, also pleaded not guilty.
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 pleas in open court.
The judge didn’t immediately give an explanation for closing the courtroom.
After Menendez and his attorneys left, jurors began filing in to be questioned by attorneys. Twelve are expected to be selected this week for the trial, which begins with opening statements on Sept. 6. The trial is expected to last about two months.
Menendez was indicted in 2015, charged with accepting campaign donations and gifts, which included vacation trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic, from Melgen in exchange for using his position in Congress to lobby for the man’s business interests.
The superseding, or updated, indictment was filed last fall by the government after U.S. District Judge William Walls dismissed two bribery counts against each defendant.
Menendez and Melgen have argued in court papers that the gifts and donations were innocent and that there was no bribery agreement. Menendez also claims his actions were legitimate legislative duties.
Melgen was convicted in April on multiple counts of Medicare fraud in a separate trial. Menendez wasn’t implicated in that case, but part of the indictment charges him with interceding on behalf of Melgen in a Medicare dispute.
The government’s case against the two men centers on meetings and interactions Menendez had with, among others, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and acting Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner.
Jurors will have to weigh whether those fall under the category of “official acts” under a law whose definitions have shifted in the wake of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in the case of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.
If Menendez is convicted and steps down or is forced out of the Senate before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican would pick a successor. It would take a two-thirds majority vote to remove him from the Senate. His seat is up for election next November.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy has a large lead in polls ahead of his Republican challenger in the race to replace Christie.
Republicans have a 52-48 edge in the Senate, but their slim majority is one of the factors making it difficult for the GOP to push President Donald Trump’s agenda. An attempt to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health law fell by one vote last month.
Menendez had a 44 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll released in June, but the same poll found that 44 percent of voters don’t think he deserves to be re-elected next year. The poll of 1,103 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points
as carried in ABC on 23.8.17