NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The judge in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and his longtime friend chastised prosecutors Thursday for asking a witness “irrelevant” questions, and he cautioned both sides to avoid turning the case into a tabloid trial by focusing on details about swanky hotels, limestone baths and rain showers.
U.S. District Judge William Walls’ admonition came during the questioning of the prosecution’s first witness, an FBI agent summoned to authenticate emails between Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen about a trip to Paris taken by the New Jersey Democrat in 2010.
Melgen paid for Menendez’s $4,900, three-night stay with his American Express points — part of a scheme, prosecutors claim, in which Melgen showered gifts on Menendez to get Menendez to pressure government officials on behalf of Melgen’s business interests.
The questioning sought to show that Menendez initially inquired about cheaper rooms, then asked Melgen to get him the more expensive room with the luxury features.
Walls interrupted the questioning and sent the jury out of the room before addressing the attorneys.
“I said before I’m not going to let this be a tabloid trial,” he said, adding, “Who cares whether the senator opted for a more expensive room? What is the point to be made? I don’t think it’s a sin for him to want a limestone bath per se, and if anyone’s ever been in a rain shower, he or she would appreciate one.”
While Walls warned both sides, it was a break from a pattern in which he has clashed on several occasions with defense attorneys.
Earlier Thursday, Melgen attorney Kirk Ogrosky told jurors in his opening statement that the government’s case was built on “corrupt assumptions” rather than hard evidence of any bribery arrangement.
Melgen and Menendez spent time frequently at Melgen’s homes in Florida and the Dominican Republic, Ogrosky said, and Menendez often paid for his own flights to visit Melgen with family members.
“That’s a heck of a bribe,” Ogrosky told jurors. “‘I’ll bribe you, pay your own way.’ That’s baloney.”
Ogrosky also said Melgen didn’t get any benefit from Menendez’s alleged attempts to pressure government officials on his behalf.
The government painted a different picture in its opening statement Wednesday. Justice Department attorney Peter Koski described Menendez pressuring government officials to help Melgen with securing visas for his foreign girlfriends and intervening in a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican…