Abbe Lowell, Menendez's attorney, argued that whatever gifts his client received from his longtime friend Salomon Melgen do not constitute bribes, and that although meetings Menendez held with government officials may have ultimately had some bearing on the ophthalmologist’s business interests, in the end they were focused on policy and were simply "what members of Congress do."
In 2015, both Melgen and Menendez were indicted on multiple bribery and fraud charges, and a conviction could not only signal a shift in the deeply divided US Senate but could also threaten Menendez’s political career, AP reports.
If Menendez is ousted, the timing of his departure from office will be key: if the senator is forced to step down before January 16 when Republican Governor Chris Christie leaves office, then Christie will get to choose Menendez’s successor, and he will likely appoint a replacement from his own party, giving the Republicans an even stronger hold on their majority in the upper house of the US Congress.
"Not once have I dishonored my public office," Menendez said before entering the courthouse on Wednesday.
Prosecutors charge Melgen with allowing Menendez to use the doctor’s private jet to make 10 trips to Florida and the Dominican Republic as compensation for the lawmaker allegedly helping sweep a $9 million Medicare overbilling dispute under the rug.
Melgen is also said to have contributed $750,000 to political institutions supporting Menendez’s re-election and a paid for a three-night stay at a Paris hotel for $5,000.
Melgen's attorney Kirk Ogrosky claimed in his opening statements that when Menendez visited Melgen and his family he often paid for his own flights. He told jurors, "That's a heck of a bribe, 'I'll bribe you, pay your own way.' That's baloney."
Justice Department attorney Peter Koski pointed out that the timing of meetings by Menendez that have been called into question coincides with trips paid for and donations made by Melgen.
Refuting the notion that the gifts were an innocent exchange between friends, Koski said the senator "went to bat when Dr. Melgen asked, and Dr. Melgen asked frequently."
"There's no friendship exception to bribery. There's no friendship exception to breaking the law," he stressed.
Menendez, the first US senator in almost 40 years to face bribery charges, said outside the courthouse, "I started my public career fighting corruption … and I have always acted in accordance with the law. And I believe when all the facts are known, I will be vindicated."
Despite the indictment, Menendez has maintained a public profile, attending a rally of a 100 people after leaving court on Wednesday to protest US President Donald Trump’s rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order that legally protected young undocumented immigrants.