NEWARK — U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez wasn’t Dr. Salomon Melgen’s only “hermano,” according to testimony Wednesday in Menendez’s federal corruption trial.
Melgen’s former full-time pilot, who said he flew the senator on approximately 16 flight legs aboard Melgen’s two private jets — said Melgen even called him “hermano.”
“Sometimes, in a joking manner, he would call me ‘hermano’ as a term of endearment,” the pilot, Robert Nylund, said.
“Did you and Dr. Melgen have a friendship?” prosecutor Peter Koski asked.
“No, sir,” Nylund said. “It was strictly professional.”
Attorneys for Menendez and Melgen, his co-defendant, have argued that the two men were so close that they referred to each other as “hermano,” the Spanish word for brother.
The Democratic senator’s friendship with Melgen is the key to his defense; the men’s attorneys have argued that gifts Melgen bestowed on Menendez — private jet flights, villa stays in the Dominican Republic, an expensive Paris hotel room and hundreds of thousands in campaign donations — were tokens of friendship.
Likewise, defense lawyers argue, favors Menendez did for Melgen — advocating for the doctor at the highest levels of federal government for visas for his foreign girlfriends and on Melegn’s business issues — were because of their friendship and not part of a quid pro quo, as prosecutors allege.
Wednesday’s proceedings in federal court in Newark included photos of the interior of the two private jets in which Melgen flew Menendez: An eight-seat Hawker and an 11-seat Challenger. The photos of the Challenger showed a luxurious interior, which included a four-seat “executive club,” a couch and a kitchenette.
Nylund testified he would stock the plane with Evian water, cranberry-apple juice and orange juice specifically for Menendez as well as other beverages for other passengers.
On Tuesday, prosecutors also sought to undercut the significance of Melgen’s use of the word ‘hermano’ by asking former Melgen girlfriend Svitlana Buchyk if he used the word to describe other people. He did, Buchyk said, but only when those people were “like his family.”
“Would you hear him refer to other passengers on the plane in the same way?” Koski asked Nylund on Wednesday.
“At times,” Nylund responded.
Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell animatedly questioned Nylund about the word “hermano,” citing seven instances in which Nylund had met with prosecutors or FBI agents since 2013 to discuss the case or prepare testimony. The line of questioning appeared intended to suggest Nylund was coached specifically on his response to the “hermano” question.
“In any of these seven occasions in which you met with the FBI or testified with the grand jury and answered all their questions, have you ever been asked before this morning whether you were ever asked about the phrase ‘hermano,’” Lowell asked.
“This morning was the first time,” Nylund said.
Nylund also described the first time he picked up Menendez in the eight-seat private jet Melgen first owned, in the summer of 2008.
He testified that he and his co-pilot flew an empty plane to Teterboro Airport in Bergen County, where they met Menendez and an unidentified female passenger. They had planned to fly them to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen had a vacation home. But the cabin filled with smoke from a mechanical problem, forcing them to divert to Melgen’s hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida, where they remained overnight to fix the problem. They took off the next day for the Dominican Republic, Nylund said.
On several occasions, Nylund said, he flew an empty plane to pick up Menendez, sometimes picking him up at Teterboro Airport and flying him to West Palm Beach, where Melgen would board for the second leg of the trip to the Dominican Republic.
During his questioning, Melgen attorney Murad Hussain stressed that, without breaking the flights Menendez took into legs, Nylund actually recalled four full trips between either New Jersey and the Dominican Republic or West Palm Beach and the Dominican on which Menendez flew.
Wednesday’s testimony at times delved into the obscure, from the meaning of “zulu time” to the radio signals pilots use to communicate on their landing approaches. But more consequential was the different way prosecutors and the defense framed the number of flights Menendez took.
Defense attorneys also stressed that many of the flights Menendez was on included other people. And they attempted to diminish the significance of the pilots providing water and juice specifically for Menendez by noting that others on board — including the pilots — had specific refreshments available, like Coke Zero, wine and Cointreau.
Lowell also engaged in a testy exchange with Judge William Walls over Lowell’s questioning of an FBI agent who worked on Menendez’s case.
Prosecutors objected to Lowell questioning the agent, Alan Mohl, over alleged law enforcement leaks to the media. Lowell said he was attempting to show bias on the FBI’s part.
“There’s such a thing as intellectual honesty,” Walls said.
Lowell called that a “personal criticism” that suggested he was being “intellectually dishonest,” and noted that Walls permitted him to ask the case’s first witness — an FBI analyst — if she leaked information to the press.
“You have said to me I went up to the podium knowing I was going to do something wrong. I have never done that in my career. And I did it because you allowed it the first time,” Lowell said.
The two ended the exchange cordially. “Good friends can argue,” Walls said.
“And we are doing it,” Lowell said. “And I appreciate the back and forth.”