NEWARK, N.J. — U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez didn't report on Senate disclosure forms free flights and a luxury hotel stay paid for by a wealthy donor over several years, according to testimony Wednesday in the two men's bribery trial.
Prosecutors are seeking to show jurors the New Jersey Democrat tried to hide the gifts given to him by Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. They say the gifts were part of a bribery agreement in which Menendez used his political influence to help Melgen in two business disputes and with visas for reputed foreign girlfriends.
On Wednesday, prosecutors also showed jurors a clip of a CNN interview Menendez gave in 2013 and a press release from Menendez's office.
In both, Menendez acknowledged he took a few flights on the plane of Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. Prosecutors have introduced evidence that he took more flights on Melgen's plane or, when the doctor's plane wasn't available, flights on another private jet paid for by Melgen.
Menendez and Melgen have said in court filings — and Menendez has said publicly — that there was no bribery agreement and that the flights and other gifts were expressions of the two men's longtime friendship.
During cross-examination near the end of the day, an attorney representing Menendez sought to bolster that argument by using copies of Menendez's passport to show he made numerous trips to the Dominican Republic — before and during the time covered in the indictment — to visit Melgen at his own expense.
In the CNN interview from February 2013, Menendez discusses his reimbursement of about $58,000 to Melgen for some of the flights he took a few years earlier. The delay in reimbursement was because the flights "unfortunately fell through the cracks" during a time when he was busy with travel on behalf of Senate Democrats and for his own campaign, he told CNN.
Senate ethics investigators had begun probing Menendez's relationship with Melgen before the reimbursement. Pressed during the interview whether he paid back the money only after reporters began inquiring about the flights, he replied, "That's not the case. The bottom line is when it came to my attention, I paid for it."
The relationship between Menendez and Melgen surfaced in early 2013 after FBI agents searched Melgen's West Palm Beach offices. Melgen ultimately was charged and convicted of Medicare fraud this year in a separate case not involving Menendez.
FBI agent Alan Mohl, who worked on the Menendez investigation from 2013, testified Wednesday that Menendez's Senate disclosure forms from 2007 through 2011 didn't report flights he took on Melgen's plane between New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, where Melgen owns a villa.
Mohl also testified that Menendez didn't report a stay at a $1,500-per-night Paris hotel in 2010 paid for with Melgen's American Express points.
On cross-examination by Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell, Mohl confirmed Menendez's passport showed more than two dozen trips to the Dominican Republic from the late 1990s through 2013, most paid for by Menendez.
The defense wants to show Menendez didn't behave any differently during the alleged bribery scheme than he did over years of friendship with Melgen, and that the free flights were a gesture of that friendship.
Prosecutors have introduced testimony that Menendez didn't fly on Melgen's private jet until 2006, the year Menendez was named to the Senate to replace Jon Corzine and, later that year, elected to a full term. Menendez had served in the House before that.