Judge rules Sen. Menendez corruption trial to stay in New Jersey

Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

NEWARK, N.J. -- A federal judge on Tuesday refused to move Sen. Bob Menendez's corruption case from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., rejecting defense attorneys' arguments that the majority of the alleged crimes took place in the nation's capital and that a trial in New Jersey would hamper Menendez's ability to perform his duties in the Senate.

"The court sees no 'prime nerve center'" of the case in Washington, but instead in New Jersey, the Dominican Republic, France and Washington, U.S. District Judge William Walls said after hearing from both sides.

Menendez, a congressman for more than 20 years and a member of the Senate since 2006, is charged in a 22-count indictment with accepting gifts and donations totaling about $1 million from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for political favors. The gifts included flights aboard a luxury jet to the Dominican Republic and a Paris vacation.

Menendez has said he accepted gifts from Melgen because the two have been close friends for years.

Melgen also is charged in the indictment, and is charged in a separate indictment in Florida accusing him of multiple counts of Medicare fraud.

Menendez's attorneys wanted the case moved to Washington because, they said, the vast majority of the alleged illegal actions by Menendez occurred there. They also argued a trial in New Jersey would disrupt Menendez's Senate duties.

In oral arguments Tuesday morning, attorney Abbe Lowell claimed that "almost nothing of significance in this case occurred in New Jersey." He also argued that the majority of witnesses in the case are located in Washington, as are most of the attorneys, and that traveling to New Jersey would cause undue expense.

One by one, Walls rejected the arguments.

Though a small majority of potential witnesses are located in Washington, he said, that fact was outweighed by what he termed the "negligible inconvenience" of traveling to Newark. As for any disruption to Menendez's Senate duties, Walls declared that to be the price of being indicted.

A trial "should consume much of his time and attention," he said, noting that Menendez has already adjusted his Senate responsibilities by relinquishing his position as ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee.

Walls also denied that the prosecution of late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, cited by Lowell in his brief and in court Tuesday, would hold any sway over his ruling. Lowell had focused on the government's arguments that Stevens should be tried in Washington and not Alaska, the opposite of what it argued in Menendez's case.

"It involved a different defendant, different charges, different facts, and a strikingly different geographic choice - the question of whether to transfer the case 4,350 miles from its origin in Washington, D.C. to Anchorage, Alaska," he said. "By comparison, the 218 miles between Newark and Washington seem negligible."

Menendez wasn't required to attend Tuesday's hearing and was not present. Melgen remains jailed in Florida.

At an event at Newark Liberty Airport on Monday, Menendez said holding the trial in Washington would allow him to "continue my job on behalf of the people of New Jersey." He said he was confident whichever way Walls chose to rule.

"Regardless, at the end of the day I would expect that when the facts are all known, that whatever jury we're before, whether it be in New Jersey or Washington, that we'll be exonerated," he said.

Walls is seeking a mid-October trial date, but that could be delayed because Menendez's attorneys plan to file multiple motions to have the charges thrown out.