Crime and Courts
Chief investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst on crime, corruption and terrorism.

Prosecutors Say They Have Clear Evidence of Menendez in Bribe Scheme

The Justice Department filed motions Monday calling bribery charges against Senator Robert Menendez "clear and unmistakable."

Prosecutors detailed additional information, provided by several current and former leading officials about the Senator’s efforts to help a Florida eye doctor who is accused of stealing millions from Medicare. In exchange, the FBI has said, the senator accepted numerous private jet trips from Dr. Salomon Melgen and then lied about having taken many of them.

In motions that pushed back against defense efforts to get the case dismissed, prosecutors detailed some statements given to the FBI by Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

All three told the FBI they believed Menendez was contacting them to try and help the eye doctor with his Medicare problems.

"It was all about Dr. Melgen, the meeting," Sebelius told an FBI agent about why Menendez specifically met with her, according to Monday’s court filing.

And investigators said it was Reid who set up that meeting between Menendez and Sebelius "so that Senator Menendez would have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of Dr. Melgen," the agent told the grand jury.

Then-senator Harkin took a meeting with Menedez about Melgen but prosecutors said he told FBI agents "he felt that Dr. Melgen was, in fact, cheating Medicare."

But the Menendez team said grand jurors never heard from the officials directly, only from the FBI interview summaries. "The grand jury never heard from the Cabinet officials or senators that attended key meetings at issue in this case," said Menendez spokesman Steve Sandberg.

In earlier motions, Menendez and his legal team accused prosecutors and the FBI of misconduct, including misleading the grand jury. Prosecutors issued a lengthy rebuttal to those allegations and called Menendez’s allegations "naked rhetoric."

Part of the debate centers on how unsubstantiated prostitution charges involving the senator and Melgen were the initial tip that led to the FBI investigation. The criminal charges are only bribery-related. Menendez has called the underage prostitution allegation part of an unfair smear campaign, and defense motions alleged the government was out to find "something, anything" to charge him.

But in its filing Monday, prosecutors said the FBI acted properly in opening the investigation. They said the FBI received "specific and corroborated allegations" about "sex with underage prostitutes," but it was unclear if the cited corroboration went beyond the fact that the senator had traveled to the Dominican Republic.

Prosecutors also included claims from two women who made sex allegations in the "Daily Caller," claims which were later retracted.

Prosecutors also said early information included evidence that Melgen allegedly paid young women to fly with him to the Dominican Republic, and his own pilots told investigators how women who "looked like escorts" had traveled on the jet. Prosecutors said opening a case into allegations of human trafficking and underage prostitution was appropriate, even if later "unproven," and the bribery allegations later found would be part of any "normal course" of investigation.

Prosecutors Monday detailed how 36 witnesses and 300 exhibits were presented to the grand jury, and insisted the process was professional and fair. Several women who were girlfriends of Melgen and Menendez, who was divorced at the time, were called to testify. Prosecutors said the women helped substantiate the private jet trips Menendez received to the luxury resort in the Dominican Republic as well as a vacation at a leading hotel in Paris.

In a filing regarding Melgen, prosecutors said a search of his office by FBI agents turned up a black book that they said "appeared to be a ledge of prostitution activities." 

Melgen has denied wrongdoing.

Sandberg said the grand jury heard prejudicial information from the women: "The motions show how DOJ tried to make up for weak allegations about public corruption by soliciting allegations about sex. Today's filings continue that refrain, now with new salacious, baseless allegations, again having nothing to do with the actual charges in this case.”

Prosecutors were expected to file additional motions overnight. 

Judge William Walls is expected to rule sometime this fall on the senator’s motions to dismiss the case.

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