The corruption indictment against Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is only a few months old, but early court filings pull back the curtain on a legal fight that promises to be bitter, personal and contested at each step.
Weeks after prosecutors laid out a quid-pro-quo bribery scheme, defense lawyers have struck back with allegations of government misconduct, improper inquiries about personal lives, and a warped reading of criminal law. No matter how the case goes, the initial back-and-forth portends a courtroom spectacle and a challenge for a Justice Department that has rarely tangled with such a high-ranking political figure — and has a mixed track record when doing so.
“It’s going to be down and dirty. It’ll be bare knuckles, I’m sure,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s vaunted Public Integrity Section, which is handling the case.
The April indictment accuses Menendez of accepting campaign contributions and lavish gifts from a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for political and business favors. Menendez, a Democrat, and the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were charged together.
The breadth and ferocity of the Menendez defense team response has been striking, with more than a dozen motions totaling hundreds of pages that attack all aspects of the prosecution.
The defense lawyers argue that the indictment runs afoul of the Constitution’s speech or debate clause, which gives members of Congress immunity for their legislative actions. They accuse investigators of focusing on “salacious” allegations, even though those claims were later recanted and were not part of the actual indictment. They say prosecutors intimidated and threatened Menendez’s staff and family with their questions.
And they contend that the indictment represents an intentional effort to criminalize routine interactions between a politician and his good friend of more than 20 years.
“Officials frequently sell access by spending time with those who pay to attend fundraising events, and they are quick to answer the phone and lend an ear when major donors call,” one of the motions says. “Even presidents have been known to invite major donors to the White House for coffee or dinner, or even to stay the night in the Lincoln bedroom.”
The Menendez defense team is “going to do everything possible to win because basically, it’s life — political and otherwise — at stake here,” said defense lawyer Scott Fredericksen.