NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Testimony from defense witnesses in the bribery trial of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez on Tuesday included a curious story involving the former governor of Florida and a zinger by a prosecutor that left jurors chuckling but earned an admonition from the judge.
Earlier in the day, Vice President Mike Pence weighed in on the case, telling a radio host it would be wrong for Bob Menendez to stay in office if he’s convicted.
The Republican Pence said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Tuesday that having a convicted felon in the Senate would be “altogether inappropriate and wrong.”
Pence said it would be a decision for the Senate and he wants to respect its processes. If Menendez were to resign or be voted out by a two-thirds majority in the Senate before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office in January, the Republican likely would choose a fellow GOP member to finish his term.
Menendez is charged with agreeing to pressure government officials on behalf of a wealthy friend in exchange for luxury hotel stays and free flights on the friend’s private jet, as well as more than $600,000 in donations to Democratic campaign groups supporting Menendez.
The friend, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, also is on trial. The indictment charges him with bribing Menendez in exchange for help with an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute, a port security contract in the Dominican Republic and visas for three reputed girlfriends.
On Tuesday, jurors heard testimony from Melgen’s wife and his lawyer. Flor Melgen recalled how then-Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist showed up at her Palm Beach County home unannounced in October 2010, when he was running for Senate as an independent.
Crist apparently was hoping Menendez, at the time the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was there that night, she testified. He wasn’t, but Crist wound up dining and staying overnight. He reimbursed the Melgens $100 for the dinner.
“So at least one politician knows how to pay your husband back,” Justice Department attorney Monique Abrishami said. Defense attorneys immediately objected, and U.S. District Judge William Walls cautioned jurors to disregard attorneys’ “throwaway questions.”
According to the indictment, Melgen paid for Menendez’s roundtrip airfare from New Jersey to Florida around that time. Defense attorneys contend it was a politically related trip for Menendez, and shouldn’t be considered part of an alleged bribery scheme.
Melgen’s lawyer testified he discussed Medicare policy issues in a meeting with Menendez in 2012, prior to Menendez’s meetings with health officials including then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The indictment charges those meetings were meant to advocate for Melgen. Sebelius and others testified that Menendez didn’t mention Melgen’s name during the meetings.
On Monday, Walls denied a request from both defendants to dismiss the charges on the grounds that they didn’t meet a narrower standard for official bribery set by a 2016 Supreme Court ruling.
The trial is expected to continue through the end of the month.