In Menendez Corruption Trial, Both Sides Make Their Final Cases

NEWARK — After two months of testimony that centered on whether their long friendship had crossed a legal line, jury deliberations began Monday afternoon in the federal corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez and his co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor and political donor from Florida.

In his closing argument before jurors retreated to consider the two men’s fates, Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Mr. Menendez, sought to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, asking jurors in a federal courtroom here to imagine themselves being found guilty based on the kind of evidence leveled against his client.

“You wouldn’t like it, and that’s for a good reason — that’s because it’s not what proof beyond a reasonable doubt requires,” Mr. Lowell said. “You would have a right to be mad.”

When he got the opportunity to present a rebuttal, Peter Koski, the lead prosecutor in the case, urged the jurors to focus on whether the government had established “a pattern of official actions favorable to the donor.”

“Your common sense tells you that this is corruption,” he said. “Don’t let the defense overcomplicate your common sense.”

Federal prosecutors say that in exchange for gifts, including private flights and rooms at luxury hotel, as well as campaign contributions, Mr. Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, used his office to intervene to try to help a company partially owned by Dr. Melgen gain a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican Republic and came to his friend’s aid when he became embroiled in a billing dispute with Medicare. Both men, who have denied any wrongdoing, are charged with bribery and conspiracy, among other charges.

Mr. Lowell called the charges “a lot of hooey over nothing,” adding that there was “a Grand Canyon” between each accusation and the evidence presented. He said each charge could be innocently explained with one word: “friendship.” He emphasized to jurors that Dr. Melgen’s gifts to Mr. Menendez were, in essence, modest tokens of their close relationship, which began in the early 1990s.

“Gifts solely to cultivate friendship are not bribes,” he said.

Mr. Lowell insisted that Mr. Menendez had never taken any action with the sole intent of benefiting Dr. Melgen. Instead, he said, Mr. Menendez was fighting for issues in the public interest that he had long championed, including making the health care system more equitable and enhancing port security abroad.

“It would help Dr. Melgen perhaps, but it would also do something for the rest of us,” he said, adding that if Mr. Menendez chose to advocate on behalf of legitimate issues raised by a friend, his actions were “legal and proper and appropriate.”

Mr. Koski fired back when it was his turn before jury.

“Dr. Melgen got what he paid for and Senator Menendez was certainly enriched,” he said. “If Caribbean vacations, private jet flights and a hotel in Paris are not lifestyle enhancements, then we should all be as unenriched as Senator Menendez.’’

While Dr. Melgen might have wanted to be generous with a friend, Mr. Koski said he also wanted to influence the behavior of a senator.

“Friendship and bribery can coexist, ladies and gentlemen,’’ Mr. Koski said. “The defendants are friends, but there were moments when that friendship became corrupted. If you find that gifts were given both out of friendship and with corrupt intent, that is sufficient for you to find a corrupt intent.”

Both lawyers on Monday made reference to two of the most high-profile witnesses during the trial, Senator Cory Booker, another New Jersey Democrat, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. Mr. Lowell said that Mr. Graham’s appearance to testify on behalf of someone from another state and another party was “special.” He also reminded jurors that Mr. Booker had testified that Mr. Menendez had never let him down.

“That tells you something important,’’ Mr. Lowell said, “that Bob is an honest and trustworthy man and not a corrupt person,”

Mr. Koski said that the men were “political witnesses.”

“The defendant’s public politics say nothing about their private character,” he said. “Do not let the defense get away with politicizing this case.”

The jury is scheduled to resume deliberations on Tuesday morning.

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