A federal judge has thrown out four bribery charges against Sen. Robert Menendez and his longtime friend and donor, leaving intact the bulk of the corruption case against them.
Prosecutors indicted Menendez and Salomon Melgen, an eye doctor, in April, after accusing the men of engaging in a quid pro quo bribery scheme in which Melgen financed the lawmaker's lavish trips and political campaigns in exchange for help advancing his own interests with federal agencies.
The defense quickly went on the attack, filing a barrage of 15 motions targeting the bribery and fraud case against them. Their arguments spanned everything from accusing the Justice Department of misconduct to allegations that prosecutors had overstepped their bounds under the Constitution's speech or debate clause, which protects lawmakers from being punished for official legislative acts.
But Senior U.S. District Judge William Walls late Monday ruled the majority of those defense claims were unpersuasive. The New Jersey judge did agree to dismiss four of the 18 bribery charges, on the ground that Melgen's contributions to a legal defense fund benefiting Menendez did not involve "an explicit agreement tied to the donations."
Defense lawyers Abbe D. Lowell and Kirk Ogrosky had already signaled an immediate appeal was likely if they lost on the speech or debate clause claims. After Monday's ruling Lowell reiterated Menendez's innocence and predicted a long road ahead for the case.
"Many of the motions raise important and novel legal questions that often require review by trial and appellate courts," Lowell wrote in a statement. "The government, we, and even the court in this case acknowledged that additional review would occur here no matter how the motions were decided. As we did when issues came up in the grand jury phase of this case, we intend to seek that additional review from the court of appeals on several of the decisions that were announced today."
That means a trial, which could feature witnesses including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, would not begin until the fall of 2016 — just as the presidential campaign intensifies.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined comment on the judge's ruling, which preserves 18 of the indictment's 22 charges.
Ogrosky said the defense teams continue to review the decision. "We are certainly pleased that the court dismissed the charges that violated the Constitution on their face," he said in an email message. "We appreciate the time and effort taken by the court to address our concerns. At the end of the day, Dr. Melgen committed no crime and will be vindicated."