NEWARK, N.J. - Jurors in the bribery trial of Sen. Bob Menendez heard competing narratives during closing arguments Thursday, with the prosecution calling him the "personal senator" of a wealthy friend and defence attorneys accusing the government of misleading the jury with cherry-picked facts.
"They are lying to you," Kirk Ogrosky, an attorney representing Menendez's friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen told jurors. "They're making up a story and trying to get the evidence to fit their story."
The day ended before Menendez's attorney, Abbe Lowell, had a chance to give his closing. He will do so on Monday, and will be followed by the government's rebuttal before jurors start deliberating.
The panel has sat through nine weeks of testimony and arguments, though neither defendant testified. They will be asked to determine whether Menendez's flights on Melgen's private jet and other gifts, as well as more than $600,000 in campaign contributions, were bribes, and whether the New Jersey Democrat's meetings and conversations with executive branch officials were official acts performed in return.
Defence attorneys contend Menendez's meetings were to discuss policy issues and not to lobby on behalf of Melgen.
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 Republican could appoint a replacement.
An indictment alleges Menendez pressured officials to try and resolve Melgen's $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a stalled contract for port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic for a company Melgen owned. Menendez also is charged with not reporting the gifts on Senate disclosure forms.
"What was he so determined to hide? That he'd been bought by Dr. Melgen to serve as Dr. Melgen's personal senator," Justice Department prosecutor J.P. Cooney said during his closing.
Cooney detailed the three primary areas in which Menendez allegedly helped Melgen in exchange for the gifts: the Medicare billing dispute, the port screening contract and visas for three of Melgen's reputed foreign girlfriends.
By the time of a 2010 Paris trip in which Melgen paid for Menendez's stay at a $1,500-a-night hotel with his credit card points, Menendez already had helped Melgen with the visas and had alerted staffers to Melgen's Medicare problem, Cooney told jurors.
Melgen gave $300,000 in June 2012 to a Democratic political action committee earmarked for New Jersey, around the same time Menendez met with the head of Medicare, and several weeks before he met with then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Cooney displayed an electronic copy of the check, which was handwritten.
"Who pulls out their checkbook and hand-writes a $300,000 check?" he asked. "How about someone trying to send a message?"
"Robert Menendez held himself out as putting New Jersey first, but Dr. Melgen came calling with a better offer," he concluded.
Defence attorney Jonathan Cogan, also representing Melgen, criticized the government's case as a pastiche of flight logs, emails and meetings that don't amount to a coherent scheme.
Menendez's visits to Melgen's home in the Dominican Republic on Melgen's plane were social visits, he told jurors as he showed pictures of the two men relaxing with friends and family. Two weeks after Melgen received an initial letter about the Medicare action against him, he said, Menendez paid his own way to attend Melgen's daughter's wedding and gave a $1,000 cash gift.
Prosecutors contended the only reason Menendez didn't act after Melgen contributed another $300,000 in late 2012 was because details began leaking out and reporters began probing the relationship, Cogan said. But the indictment alleges a golf outing and dinner with Melgen in Florida three months later were bribes, he said.
"They're telling you it's a bribe when it suits them," he told jurors. "What they're doing is taking a look at dates and emails and partial facts and they've said, 'We're just going to weave a story how we want the narrative to be.'"
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.