MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
An update now on the corruption trial of a sitting U.S. senator. A federal judge has rejected an attempt to dismiss the charges against New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez. The prosecution has rested, and today Menendez's lawyers opened the defense phase of the trial.
Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY in Philadelphia has been covering this trial. He joins me now. Hey there, Joe.
JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Before we get to today's twists, of which there are plenty, briefly remind us what sort of corruption Menendez is being accused of.
HERNANDEZ: So Menendez is accused of taking all of these lavish gifts from a good friend of his, a wealthy Florida eye doctor named Salomon Melgen. And these gifts included free flights on Melgen's private jet, hotel rooms in Paris and trips to Melgen's house in the Dominican Republic. Now, prosecutors say in return Menendez became kind of Melgen's, quote, "personal senator." He would do him favors when Melgen needed help sorting out a Medicare billing dispute, say, or a port contract in the Dominican Republic. Prosecutors also said Menendez helped Melgen sort out visa applications for Melgen's foreign girlfriends.
KELLY: OK, so that brings us up to this morning in Newark. The judge let all 18 counts against Senator Menendez go forward. Why?
HERNANDEZ: Well, Judge William Walls said that he's going to let the case proceed. And this is based on a Supreme Court decision from last year in a different bribery case. And that was the case of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who had been convicted of bribery.
KELLY: So different case, different state.
HERNANDEZ: Totally different case, totally different state. And the Supreme Court last year overturned that conviction. They said that politicians couldn't be convicted of bribery for simply setting up a meeting or making a phone call on behalf of a donor. Now, Judge Walls said this new definition could be met in the Menendez case, so he would let the case proceed to the jury.
KELLY: We said the defense will start laying out its case today. Do we know what that case is going to be?
HERNANDEZ: Well, from the beginning, the defense attorneys have said these two guys are just good friends, longtime friends. And friends give each other gifts. That's what they do. And in the cases where Menendez got involved in matters that Melgen brought to his attention, the defense attorneys said, you know, sitting senators learn about issues from their constituents, from people, and he did so in this case.
Now, prosecutors have put forward this theory, and they're calling it the stream-of-benefits theory, which essentially means that Melgen plied Menendez with all these gifts over the years so that when an issue did come up he had a senator there and he could ask him for help.
Now, the defense attorneys have said there was never any evidence of a quid pro quo. There was never any smoking gun agreement between these two men. And they'll continue to make that defense going forward.
KELLY: Is Senator Menendez continuing to carry out his duties in the Senate, by the way, as all this unfolds in Newark?
HERNANDEZ: Well, trial isn't every day of the week. They're off on Fridays. They're off some other days here and there. And so, yes, he's making - he's continuing to do his Senate business. He even made a trip to Puerto Rico the other day.
KELLY: Oh, to check on hurricane relief efforts?
KELLY: OK. And meanwhile, there are questions over whether Menendez, who as we said is a Democrat - if he were to be convicted, if he had to step down, his successor would be named by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican. So are there wider national political implications for what's happening here?
HERNANDEZ: Well, there could be. There is a governor's race going on in New Jersey right now. So Chris Christie is being term-limited out of office. So there will be a new governor come January. And with the kind of slow pace at which this trial is unfolding it's likely that, you know, even if convicted, Menendez will appeal. This will probably drag on into the new administration. And that could be a Democrat. So even if Menendez were convicted and had to leave the Senate, it could be a Democratic governor of New Jersey who appoints his replacement.
KELLY: OK, a lot of ifs and a lot of politics to watch there. Thank you, Joe.
HERNANDEZ: Thank you.
KELLY: Joe Hernandez of member station WHYY.
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