By DAVID PORTER
NEWARK, N.J. — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez “sold his office for a lifestyle he couldn’t afford” by accepting luxury trips from a wealthy doctor seeking political influence in return, a government prosecutor told jurors Wednesday during opening statements of the Democrat’s corruption trial.
Menendez’s attorney responded in his opening statement that gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, Menendez’s longtime friend, didn’t equate to a bribery agreement. Menendez’s meetings with government officials — though they could have aided Melgen’s business interests — were “what members of Congress do” and were meant to influence future policy, he said.
Menendez and Melgen were indicted in 2015 and face multiple fraud and bribery charges in a case that could threaten Menendez’s political career and potentially the makeup of a deeply divided U.S. Senate if he’s convicted.
Both men have pleaded not guilty. Menendez said before entering the courthouse Wednesday: “Not once have I dishonored my public office.”
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 Republic and a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute. Individually and through his company, Melgen also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Menendez’s legal defense fund and entities that supported his re-election.
Many of Menendez’s meetings and interactions with the officials occurred in proximity to Melgen’s donations or trips by Menendez he paid for, Koski claimed.
“He went to bat when Dr. Melgen asked, and Dr. Melgen asked frequently,” said Koski, who discounted defense lawyers’ contention in court filings that the trips were innocent gifts between friends. “There’s no friendship exception to bribery. There’s no friendship exception to breaking the law.”
Abbe Lowell, representing Menendez, began his statement discussing the two men’s friendship, which dates back to the early 1990s, and said “acting out of friendship is not a crime.”
Menendez’s meetings with Health and Human Services officials — including former department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — regarding Medicare reimbursement policies were aimed at correcting billing inconsistencies, a concern shared by other senators, Lowell told jurors.
Similarly, Menendez’s interest in port…