Menendez defense tries to poke holes in prosecution theory

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – Defense attorneys in the bribery trial of Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy donor continued their quest Monday to undermine the narrative underpinning the government’s case – that the donor showered the New Jersey Democrat with free trips on his private plane and other gifts in exchange for Menendez’s help in Washington with personal and business interests.

During cross-examination of one of the FBI agents assigned to the investigation beginning in 2013, they sought to place the trips Menendez took to the Dominican Republic to visit Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in the context of the two men’s friendship dating back to the 1990s.

Reintroducing a chart of flights shown to jurors during questioning by the prosecution, they showed that Menendez paid for most of his flights to visit Melgen’s villa at the exclusive Casa de Campo resort between 2006 and 2013.

They also tried to show that many other people, including friends and family of both men, frequently flew on Melgen’s plane, which Melgen took about once a week between the Dominican Republic and south Florida, where his practice was based.

Prosecutors responded by having the witness, FBI Agent Alan Mohl, repeat earlier testimony that Menendez only began flying on Melgen’s private jet after he became a member of the Senate, even though Melgen had bought the plane three years earlier, and that Menendez didn’t reimburse Melgen for some of the flights until early 2013, after reporters began asking questions about the two men’s relationship.

An indictment charges that between 2006 and 2013, Menendez took the gifts plus campaign donations in exchange for helping Melgen in a Medicare billing dispute, in a contract dispute involving port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic and with visas for three of Melgen’s reputed foreign girlfriends.

Prosecutors have shown that Menendez didn’t report the free flights, or a $1,500-per-night hotel stay in Paris in 2010 paid for by Melgen’s American Express points, on his Senate disclosure forms.

The defense contends the indictment criminalizes the pair’s friendship by drawing parallels between trips Menendez took, which it says were part and parcel of his friendship with Melgen, and meetings and other interactions he had with government officials, which it says were within the scope of his duties as a senator.

The trial is in its fourth week, and is expected to last several more weeks.

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