U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez did not reimburse his friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, for two round-trip flights on his private jet until a reporter started asking questions, according to testimony presented in federal court on Thursday.
The prosecution introduced a November 1, 2012 email from Washington Post reporter Paul Kane, asking about a trip to the Dominican Republican that had surfaced in news reports just days before the senator was to stand for re-election.
“Did Sen. Menendez take that trip with Dr. Melgen, and has he accepted the use of the doctor’s jet?” Kane wrote to Menendez’s communications director, Tricia Enright. “In which case, if he has, does he have a letter from the ethics committee okaying his gift from Dr. Melgen, and will this be reported on his financial disclosure form?”
Prosecutors argue that private jet flights were one of several ways Melgen bribed the Democratic senator, who in turn allegedly secured visas for Melgen’s girlfriends and used his official influence to help Melgen’s businesses. They also charge that Menendez concealed Melgen’s flights and other gifts by not disclosing them on official forms.
According to evidence introduced at trial, Enright that same day forwarded Kane’s email to Menendez staffers Danny O’Brien, Kerri Talbott and Michael Soliman, and political strategist Brad Lawrence.
On November 26, 2012 according to an email introduced as evidence, Melgen’s son-in-law, Eduardo Rodriguez, sent Menendez an email with quotes for three flights Menendez had taken on Melgen’s jet two-and-a-half years earlier.
One of the trips, a May 2010 flight from Atlanta to the Dominican Republic and then on to Puerto Rico, was reimbursed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Menendez chaired in 2010. But two of the trips, which were between Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic — with one of them stopping in Florida in between — were reimbursed by Menendez.
According to the email, Menenedez was not charged for the time the plane flew empty to pick him up at Teterboro airport in New Jersey, or the time it flew empty from Teterboro to its home airport in West Palm Beach after dropping Menendez off. That total would have been $78,300. Instead, Menendez was charged $58,500 for the time he was on board, which he paid by check to Melgen’s medical company in January 2013.
The reimbursement by Menendez made news at the time because it was a considerable sum for a senator who had little income besides his $174,000 per year salary, and because he did not make the payment until questions were raised about the flights. And prosecutors wanted to make sure the jury understood that point.
“According to the check from Robert Menendez, in what years did the flights take place?” prosecutor Amanda Vaughn asked witness Christina Cobb, the FBI agent who initially collected the evidence.
“2010,” Cobb said.
“When was this check written?” Vaughn asked.
“January 4, 2013,” Cobb said.
Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell noted that Menendez himself was never forwarded the email from the Washington Post reporter.
Lowell also attempted to question Cobb about why the jury was not shown a third potential piece of evidence: A cover letter from Menendez’s attorneys that accompanied his 2013 check to Melgen, which Lowell said outlined the reasons for the payment.
Prosecutors objected, and Judge William Walls told the jury to leave the room.
“The government gave me this exhibit yesterday to review. … They gave me a folder. They said to me this is what we’re going to seek to introduce. In it there were three documents. Today, they decided, two,” Lowell said. “The question then becomes when does one set out to point out that this document once had more, now has less.”
Walls said it is “within the discretion” of the prosecutors how they want to present evidence, and that the defense can attempt to introduce the cover letter as evidence when appropriate.
Much of the day’s testimony revolved around the intricacies of flights taken by Menendez, but there were some fireworks when Walls felt attorneys were attempting to influence the jury with evidence from cross-examination that they had not yet introduced.
Walls said attorneys had acted “arrogantly” by ignoring his previous warnings, and said he would “slap you down verbally” if they didn’t stop.
“I’m not going to permit it, and if it embarrasses you, so be it,” Walls said.
Walls did not call out any attorneys by name, and made most attorneys individually stand and acknowledge that they understood his instructions. But his warning came shortly after an attorney for Meglen sought information from a pilot that had not yet been introduced as evidence.
The pilot said he didn’t know. Walls then dismissed the jury from the room.
“Possibly to your embarrassment, I’m telling all counsel now. You’re not witnesses,” Walls said. “And I, professionally, as a former trial lawyer and now as a trial judge, resent attorneys trying to, and at times sneaking in evidence by way of their questions on cross examination.”
“Some of you are so arrogant in your activities that you think I’m ignoring your disregard of what I told you,” Walls said. “And I really don’t want to continually interrupt counsel with regard to that issue, nor with regard to leading questions.”
The trial, which is expected to last up to eight weeks, is set to resume on Monday.