Corruption Case Against Senator Menendez Ends in Mistrial

NEWARK — The federal corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey ended in a mistrial on Thursday after jurors said they were unable to reach a verdict, leaving Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, free to return to Congress but injecting uncertainty as he faces re-election next year and his party faces a difficult battle to retake the Senate.

After interviewing jurors individually in his chambers, Judge William H. Walls emerged to tell the court that, after nine weeks of testimony, the jury was deadlocked and that, as a result, “there is no alternative but to declare a mistrial.”

One juror told reporters that 10 of the 12 jurors supported finding Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, not guilty, saying that prosecutors had not made the case that the favors and gifts exchanged between the senator and a wealthy eye doctor went beyond what good friends do for each other.

Following the ruling, Mr. Menendez seemed both relieved and defiant, denouncing prosecutors who pursued criminal charges against him. “The way this case started was wrong, the way it was investigated was wrong, the way it was prosecuted was wrong, and the way it was tried was wrong as well,” he said.

The decision leaves Mr. Menendez, 63, safely in the Senate, denying Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey the opportunity to appoint a replacement and further tip the scales for Republicans in the Senate. But Mr. Menendez, who has been in the Senate for 12 years, emerges from the trial politically wounded as he prepares to campaign for a usually safe Democratic seat. Now, whoever challenges him will surely make Mr. Menendez’s ethics a key attack line.

Throughout the trial, poll after poll found that his approval numbers were plummeting, and a Quinnipiac poll released in September showed that 50 percent of likely New Jersey voters said that Mr. Menendez did not deserve to be re-elected.

Mr. Menendez and his friend Dr. Salomon Melgen, the ophthalmologist, were charged in an 18-count indictment. Dr. Melgen faced 11 charges, including conspiracy, bribery and honest services fraud. Mr. Menendez faced similar charges plus an additional charge of making false statements on his Senate financial disclosure forms. Mr. Menendez was accused of helping Dr. Melgen on certain issues in exchange for lavish gifts and political contributions.

Though vindicated for now, Mr. Menendez could still be retried by federal prosecutors with a new trial unfolding next year in the midst of a possible re-election campaign, but prosecutors would still have to contend with a landmark Supreme Court decision that makes it harder to prove an elected official engaged in bribery.

Still, a retrial would place Democrats in an uncomfortable position of supporting a colleague accused of bribery. But with the party already facing the prospect of having to defend 10 seats in states that were won by President Trump as they try to win back the Senate, Democrats would seem unlikely to abandon Mr. Menendez.

Though he has yet to officially declare his candidacy, Mr. Menendez has given no sign that he plans to step down, and on Thursday he vowed to confront those who sought to take advantage of the political damage caused by the trial.

“To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” Mr. Menendez said.

Officials with the United States Department of Justice said they will wait to decide whether to retry Mr. Menendez and his co-defendant, Dr. Melgen, 63, though they will likely take into account that most of the jurors favored an acquittal. “The department will carefully consider next steps in this important matter,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokesman for the agency.

One juror told reporters that the jury was never close to a consensus on the charges.

“It was very tense. We were deadlocked right out of the gate,” said the juror, Ed Norris, 49, an equipment operator from Roxbury Township, who said he believed the men were not guilty.

“I just wish there was stronger evidence,” he said. “I just didn’t see a smoking gun. They just didn’t prove it to us.”

Still, Republicans will undoubtedly seek to make any re-election effort for Mr. Menendez difficult, forcing Democrats to invest resources in a blue state. After the mistrial, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, said in a statement that he was “calling on the Senate Ethics committee to immediately investigate Senator Menendez’s actions, which led to his indictment.’’

“His trial shed light on serious accusations of violating the public’s trust as an elected official,’’ the statement said, “as well as potential violations of the Senate’s Code of Conduct.”

The jurors’ inability to reach a verdict also underscores the high bar for corruption that was set by the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican.

The indictment against Mr. Menendez and Dr. Melgen was handed down in 2015, a year before the Supreme Court decision significantly limited the official acts a politician could be convicted of in a bribery case.

The McDonnell decision loomed throughout the trial with Judge Walls at one point referring to it as “you know what,” and hinting that he may have granted a motion to dismiss the case based on the high court’s definition of bribery.

Judge Walls’ decision came on the fourth day of deliberations here in Federal District Court for New Jersey. In an unusual move, the jury had to restart deliberations on Monday after a juror was excused for a long-planned vacation.

The mistrial comes more than four years after news media reports on the relationship between the two men led to an investigation that led to the charges.

Throughout the case, lawyers for the men never strayed from a simple theme: They were friends, nothing more, with a friendship that stretched decades. So close were the two that they referred to each other as “hermano,” Spanish for brother. Any gifts that Mr. Menendez received were just an example of Dr. Melgen’s generosity, defense lawyers said. And any actions Mr. Menendez took on behalf of Dr. Melgen, including a Medicare dispute and a port security contract in the Dominican Republic, were part of his interest in broader policy issues.

But prosecutors argued that a friendship between people with power and means could be corrupted and that the many private flights, stays at seaside resorts in the Dominican Republic and a luxury hotel in Paris and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from Dr. Melgen to Mr. Menendez were evidence of illicit behavior.

Throughout the two-month trial, Mr. Menendez, arrived at the courthouse every day with his Senate staff in tow, running his Washington office from Newark. He rarely spoke with reporters about the trial, but was often seen hugging the many supporters who came to court each day. He would occasionally pray, gathering with clergy outside the courthouse and sometimes was heard singing “Amazing Grace” in an elevator.

Having started his career in New Jersey politics at age 20 on the Union City school board, Mr. Menendez climbed nearly every rung of state politics — mayor, assemblyman, state senator and congressman — before reaching the United States Senate in 2005, when the governor-elect, Jon S. Corzine, picked Mr. Menendez to replace him.

In Washington, longtime Democratic colleagues of Mr. Menendez in the Senate cheered the court’s decision and said it was time to move on.

“He has gone through our system of justice and the government didn’t prove its case,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second ranking Senate Democrat. As for welcoming Mr. Menendez back, Mr. Durbin said, “Why wouldn’t we?”

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said she did not believe that the case merited being retried.

“I think he went through hell with this and that’s enough,” she said. “The charges were not proven, therefore he should be able to come back and carry on.”

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