Attorneys for indicted U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez went to court Wednesday seeking access to evidence they claim may show the corruption case against him originated from an unidentified informant, possibly connected to the Cuban government, whose initial claims about Menendez consorting with underage prostitutes were never substantiated.
Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge William Walls they would provide him with the evidence they will seek to have protected for reasons of national security, which Walls would then review. The judge said he would consider allowing defense attorney Abbe Lowell to offer an argument for why the defense should gain access to the evidence, though Lowell would not be able to review it before making his argument.
The hearing came two days after Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen filed more than a dozen motions seeking to dismiss the 22-count indictment that charged the New Jersey Democrat with accepting campaign donations and gifts from the Florida eye doctor in exchange for political influence.
Among their many requests for evidence as part of routine pretrial motions, Menendez's attorneys have sought the identity of an informant who went by the pseudonym Peter Williams and spread allegations about the prostitutes in 2012. Several women in the Dominican Republic who initially claimed to have provided video accounts of their meetings with Menendez and Melgen later recanted and said they had been paid to concoct their accounts.
Last July, Menendez said he had asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations that the informant was part of a smear campaign connected to the Cuban government. Menendez, a Cuban-American, has been critical of the Obama administration's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Wednesday's hearing and whether investigators were probing Menendez's Cuban claims, saying the department would "reserve any comment for court."
While prosecutors have not said in court filings or in open court what evidence they are seeking to keep classified, defense attorneys believe some of it also may relate to a charge in the indictment that Menendez pressured the State Department to influence the government of the Dominican Republic on behalf of a contract by a Melgen-connected company to provide exclusive cargo-screening services in Dominican ports.
Menendez is seeking to show that there was legitimate concern by the U.S. government on the state of port security in the Dominican Republic and that he was "clearly engaged in legislative oversight on an important matter of policy - port security," according to one of this week's court filings.
Menendez and Melgen were charged in April with conspiracy and bribery. Both have pleaded not guilty, and a trial has been set for mid-October.