Will a federal jury in New Jersey view a powerful U.S. senator and his wealthy friend as the yin and yang of a corrupt bribery scheme?
Or will they see Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen as two long-time friends who exchanged gifts and took vacations together?
That tension was at the center of closing arguments attorneys made on Thursday in federal court in Newark as the wide-ranging corruption trial of both men came to a close.
The Justice Department alleges Menendez accepted gifts from Melgen including free flights on the doctor’s private jet, trips to France and the Dominican Republic, and large political contributions.
In return, the government claims, Menendez used his power as a senator to help Melgen sort out a private contract dispute, reverse a Medicare overbilling charge, and secure travel visas for the doctor’s girlfriends.
“Sen. Menendez held himself out as putting New Jersey first,” federal prosecutor J.P. Cooney told the jury, “but the very first year he became a U.S. senator, Dr. Melgen came calling with a better offer.”
Defense attorneys point to the lack of a smoking gun in the case, and say Menendez and Melgen are simply old friends who sometimes discussed bona fide policy issues that Menendez later acted on in his role as a senator.
Kirk Ogrosky, an attorney for Melgen, accused prosecutors of presenting a carefully-curated narrative of events that intentionally omitted relevant information.
“It’s actually pretty terrifying,” Ogrosky said, of the government’s case. “They took out-of-context emails and made a timeline that made things appear related that aren’t.”
Closing arguments continue on Monday, when defense attorneys and then prosecutors are scheduled to give arguments.
Earlier in the week Judge William Walls said a juror told him before the trial that she had a vacation planned for mid-November.
If the jury does not reach a verdict by the end of next week, Walls will replace that juror with an alternate and instruct them to start deliberations over.