As the corruption trial for U.S. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez begins, more salacious details of the charges against him are coming out, forcing a frustrated judge to admonish prosecutors at some point, saying the trial is becoming a “tabloid in nature.”
Prosecutors painstakingly focused their questions on allegations of $1,500 a night Paris hotel suite where the Senator stayed for three nights with a woman he is accused of having a romantic relationship with.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, went on trial Wednesday in Newark, New Jersey where he is being accused of using his office to advance the business and personal interests of his wealthy friend, Salomon Melgen. In exchange for the political favors, Menendez is being accused of receiving in return private jet trips and luxury stays in Paris and the Dominican Republic. The Florida eye doctor Melgen is also charged.
Prosecutors brought their first witness on Thursday- an FBI analyst who was made to walk through an email exchange delving into the more controversial aspects of the government’s claims on the Paris trip. Justice Department prosecutor J.P. Cooney, directed the analyst through a discussion of messages the senator is accused of exchanging with one of Melgen’s assistants and others about booking a hotel room that included “a limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower.”
Cooney went on with his questioning targeted to illustrate to the jury that the Democratic senator was angling for an expensive room. Judge William Walls, however, interfered and asked the jury to leave the courtroom and then admonished the prosecution for turning the procedure into a “tabloid trial.”
Walls’ early objections could pose some obstacles to prosecutors who are pursuing the hotel accommodations gifts as a core part of their bribery claims. Walls also had his own brushes with the defense lawyers as well.
Mendez’s defense lawyers didn’t deny the gifts that Melgen gave the Senator and the actions the Mendez took in favor of the doctor in their opening statements. What they denied was the allegation that the two men acted with corrupt intent.
Melgen’s attorney, Kirk Ogrosky, for his part painted a picture of a decades-long friendship between his client and the Senator that was cemented by similar backgrounds and political interests. Ogrosky said: “I’m here to tell you today that friendship is an absolute defense to bribery. Because when you do things for friends because you love them like a brother, it’s no bribe.”
The jury’s verdict may potentially have crucial impact in the Senate, where Republicans hold 52 seats, while Democrats have 46, with two independents. Should Mendez be convicted, two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote to expel him.