Supreme Court Ruling Threatens to Derail Case Against Menendez

NEWARK — After federal prosecutors rested their case in the corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez on Wednesday, the federal judge presiding over the trial raised critical questions into one of the core tenets of the government’s case against the New Jersey senator, citing a United States Supreme Court decision that overturned the conviction of the Bob McDonnell, a former governor of Virginia.

In response to a motion by Mr. Menendez’s lawyers to dismiss the case, Judge William H. Walls spent more than three hours deliberating with both sides before referring to specific instructions from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the McDonnell ruling, which narrowed the definition of political corruption.

Judge Walls said that he interpreted Chief Justice Roberts’s ruling as invalidating the “stream of benefits” theory of bribery, which says that a bribe can occur if one party offers a thing of value to keep the other party on retainer, essentially, rather than a more straightforward trade.

“The point is this: Does ‘stream of benefits’ still live?” Judge Walls said to Peter Koski, the lead prosecutor in the case. “If ‘stream of benefits’ still lives, then you still have a chance. You still have a chance even if ‘stream of benefits’ doesn’t live, particularly with regards to false reports.”

Indeed, Judge Walls ensured that the trial would continue at least on the charge that Mr. Menendez made false statements in failing to disclose gifts from Dr. Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist. “That will go to the jury,” the judge said. But the questions raised by the McDonnell ruling could jeopardize a significant portion of the government’s bribery case against Mr. Menendez.

Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, is charged with using the power of his office to help his friend, Dr. Melgen, in exchange for luxury gifts and political contributions. Both men deny the allegations.

Judge Walls did not issue a ruling on the motion to dismiss the case on Wednesday, and he ended the trial for the week, saying he would entertain briefs filed by both sides over the weekend and would pick up the debate when the court reconvenes on Monday.

The guidance from Judge Walls with regard to the “stream of benefits” theory came as a surprise, as many legal experts considered the McDonnell ruling’s limiting of what constitutes an “official act” by an elected official to be the central hurdle that the prosecution would have to overcome.

But Judge Walls quickly stated that he believed all four interactions charged as official acts – when Mr. Menendez intervened in visa applications, two separate instances of trying to help resolve a port security contract, and intervening in a Medicare billing dispute – met the standard set by the McDonnell decision.

Where he seemed to indicate the government’s case was faltering was, in the absence of a ‘stream of benefits’ theory, how it could prove the quid pro quo necessary in a bribery case.

“I know what you’re trying to do, but I don’t think you can do it,” Judge Walls said to Mr. Koski, as the prosecutor tried to answer the judge’s earlier request of “what’s the quid for those quos?”

In debating Judge Walls over his interpretation of the McDonnell case, Mr. Koski pointed out that no other court had ruled on the “stream of benefits” theory.

“Your honor would be the first court in the nation to invalidate the ‘stream of benefits’ theory of bribery,” Mr. Koski said.

“Of course I’m the first one,” Judge Walls said. “Because I’m the only one being tried now.”

The debate came after the prosecution rested their case on Wednesday morning, after six weeks of methodical, tedious examination, more than 30 witnesses and constant interruptions over legal squabbles and motions from the defense.

The prosecution resting its case was somewhat unexpected; after initially estimating that the trial would only take six to eight weeks, an updated calendar was introduced last month that had dates extending through Thanksgiving.

Alan Mohl, a special agent with the F.B.I., wrapped up the six-week case for the prosecution. It was the fourth time on the witness stand for Mr. Mohl, who was part of the F.B.I. team that led the investigation of Mr. Menendez. His testimony on Wednesday was limited largely by Judge Walls to focus on “dates.”

Throughout the trial, the prosecution never had a breakthrough moment nor a surprise witness. Its focus was on connecting the dots of donations, flights on private planes, luxury hotel stays and other gifts from Dr. Melgen and actions taken by Mr. Menendez.

That effort was evident in the fourth week of the trial, when one of the prosecutors, Amanda Vaughn, dragged a whiteboard to the front of the courtroom and marked up the timing of Dr. Melgen’s donations and gifts.

And instead of ending its case with explosive testimony or a final bit of evidence, the prosecution chose to retread over much of the case with Mr. Mohl, a sort of anti-climactic finish to weeks of evidence that never really had a cinematic moment.

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