Menendez lawyer assails bribery case in closing to jury

The bribery case against Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy friend is built on assumptions and speculation and is devoid of evidence of an actual criminal agreement, the Democrat’s attorney told jurors in closing arguments Monday in Newark, New Jersey.

Menendez’s longtime friendship with Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen predated the alleged bribery conspiracy by more than a decade, and that relationship “destroys each and every one of the counts” against him, Abbe Lowell told jurors.

Menendez is charged with accepting gifts from Melgen between 2006 and 2013 in exchange for pressuring government officials on behalf of Melgen’s business interests. Melgen also contributed more than $600,000 to political organizations that supported Menendez directly or indirectly.

After Lowell, the prosecution was to give a rebuttal summation today before jurors begin deliberations.

If Menendez is convicted and steps down or is voted out by a two-thirds majority before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 18, the term-limited Republican could appoint a replacement. A Democrat holds a comfortable lead in polls ahead of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election.

Prosecutors characterized Menendez as Melgen’s “personal senator” during their closing argument last week, but Lowell told jurors the government presented no evidence of an actual agreement between the two men. He said prosecutors instead “desperately tried to create a quid pro quo by listing dates on one side and dates on the other side, and that vast divide in the middle they cannot fill.”

Prosecutors want jurors to “assume, fill in the gap, guess and speculate about what happened,” he said.

Both men deny any bribery arrangement and say the gifts were reflective of their longtime friendship. Menendez contends his meetings and interactions with officials from the departments of State, Commerce and Health and Human Services were on policy issues and not to lobby for Melgen.

Menendez served in the U.S. House from 1993 until filling the Senate seat vacated when Democrat Jon Corzine became New Jersey governor in 2006.

The trial is the first major federal bribery trial since a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and narrowed the definition of official bribery.

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