The federal bribery trial of Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez ended Thursday with the jury hopelessly deadlocked on all charges, a partial victory for him that could nevertheless leave the case hanging over his head as he gears up for re-election to a sharply divided Senate.
U.S. District Judge William Walls declared a mistrial after more than six full days of deliberations failed to produce a verdict on any of the 18 counts against the New Jersey politician or his co-defendant, a wealthy Florida eye doctor accused of buying Menendez’s influence by plying him with luxury vacations and campaign contributions.
Prosecutors would not say whether they plan to retry Menendez. But on the political front, forces were already mobilizing against him, with GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately calling for an ethics investigation of him. The ethics committee said Thursday it would resume an inquiry into Menendez that started in 2012 and was deferred a year later because of the criminal investigation.
Outside the courthouse, a choked-up Menendez fought back tears as he blasted federal authorities for bringing the case and thanked the jurors in the 2½-month trial “who saw through the government’s false claims and used their Jersey common sense to reject it.”
“Certain elements of the FBI and of our state cannot stand, or even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County could grow up to be a United States senator and be honest,” said the 63-year-old son of Cuban immigrants who is up for re-election next year.
Jury member Edward Norris said 10 jurors wanted to acquit Menendez on all charges, while two held out for conviction.
Norris said that after the prosecution rested, “in my gut I was like, ‘That’s it? That’s all they had?’“
Menendez was accused of selling his political influence to Dr. Salomon Melgen for vacations in the Caribbean and Paris, flights on Melgen’s jet and hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to campaign organizations that supported the senator directly or indirectly.
In return, prosecutors said, Menendez pressured government officials on Melgen’s behalf over an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a stalled contract to provide port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic, and also helped obtain U.S. visas for the 63-year-old doctor’s girlfriends.
According to prosecutors, Melgen essentially put Menendez on the payroll and made the politician his “personal senator,” available as needed.
The defense argued that the gifts were not bribes but tokens of friendship between two men who have known each other for more than 20 years and were “like brothers.”
The jurors were instructed that they could find the men guilty even if they felt the prosecution didn’t match specific gifts to specific acts by Menendez.
Jurors needed more, according to Norris.
“I just wish there was stronger evidence right out of the gate,” the juror said. “It was a victimless crime, I think, and it was an email trial. I just didn’t see a smoking gun.”
The charges against the men included bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud, which was the most serious count, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The senator was also charged with making false statements in failing to report gifts from Melgen on his financial disclosure form. That is likely to be part of the ethics committee’s review.
Fred Turner, Menendez’s chief of staff, said there was “no merit to further pursuing this matter.”
“The Ethics Committee will come to no different conclusion than this jury,” Turner said.
In a statement, the U.S. Justice Department said it will consider its next step.
Menendez is expected to run for re-election next year and warned outside the courthouse: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”
The Republicans have a thin, 52-48 edge in the Senate as they try to push through President Donald Trump’s agenda.
The jury deliberated most of last week, then restarted midway through with an alternate after a juror was excused for a long-planned vacation. The jurors first reported on Monday that they couldn’t agree on a verdict, but the judge asked them to keep trying.
This time, the jurors said in a note that that had reviewed all of the evidence in great detail and “tried to look at this case from different viewpoints,” but they were “not willing to move away from our strong convictions.”
Melgen is already facing the possibility of a long prison sentence after being convicted in April of bilking Medicare out of as much as $105 million by performing unneeded tests and treatments.
The last sitting senator convicted of a crime was Ted Stevens of Alaska, a Republican found guilty in 2008 of concealing more than $250,000 in home renovations and other gifts. His conviction was later overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct, and he died in a 2010 plane crash.
The Menendez case was the first major federal bribery trial since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 threw out the conviction of Republican former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and narrowed the definition of bribery.
In recent months, the McDonnell ruling led judges to overturn the convictions of at least three other public officials, including a former Louisiana congressman. Menendez’s lawyers had likewise hoped to get the case against the senator dismissed, but the judge refused.
Menendez served in the House from 1993 until he was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy in 2006. He has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and was a major player in the unsuccessful bipartisan “Gang of Eight” effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws in 2013.
More recently, he drew the ire of some fellow Democrats when he opposed President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and efforts to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.