U.S. Senator Bob Menendez abused his power to help a wealthy benefactor in a brazen, years-long bribery scheme that netted the New Jersey Democrat lavish vacations and major campaign funds, federal prosecutors told a jury on Wednesday.“This case is about a corrupt politician who sold his senate office for a life of luxury he couldn’t afford, and a greedy doctor who put that senator on his payroll,” the lead prosecutor, Peter Koski, said at the start of Menendez’s corruption trial in Newark.
Menendez is accused of intervening with federal officials to help Salomon Melgen, an ophthalmologist from Florida who showered the senator with private flights, stays at a Caribbean villa and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money.
The case comes at a crucial time in Washington, D.C., where Republicans hold a razor-thin 52-48 edge in the Senate. If Menendez is convicted and either resigns or is expelled by his colleagues before January, his replacement would be named by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump.
A group of supporters cheered Menendez as he entered the court on Wednesday morning. The senator told reporters he had “never backed away from a fight.” While waiting in the security line inside, he posed for a photo with a woman in a wheelchair.
Menendez has served in the Senate since 2006, and is running for reelection in 2018 despite the 12-count corruption indictment.
Koski told jurors Menendez met with numerous officials to help Melgen, including efforts to secure visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends and to pressure the U.S. State Department to resolve a contract dispute between a company Melgen owned and the Dominican Republic.
The senator also asked top officials to intervene on Melgen’s behalf after Medicare concluded the doctor had overbilled the agency by nearly $9 million.
Melgen was convicted this year of massive Medicare fraud, though he has yet to be sentenced.
On several occasions, Menendez’s actions followed directly after contributions from Melgen, Koski said. In April 2012, Menendez met with an assistant secretary of state regarding the Dominican dispute; Melgen gave Menendez $80,000 on the same day.
“Make no mistake about it: Robert Menendez was Salomon Melgen’s personal United States senator,” Koski said.
Menendez and Melgen’s attorneys have not yet delivered their opening statements.