It’s impossible to discuss Hudson County’s political scene and not acknowledge Bob Menendez. Currently serving his second full term in the United States Senate, Menendez first rose to prominence on the cliffs of the palisades, serving on Union City’s Board of Education before being elected their mayor in 1986.
Menendez had stops in both New Jersey’s Assembly and State Senate along the way before being elected to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, serving six two-year terms before landing his Senate gig. Menendez was once one of the country’s most prominent Democrats, heading the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee as recently as 2015.
That all changed when Menendez was indicted on Federal corruption charges, being accused of conspiracy and bribery. Much is alleged in the 68-page indictment, but the most significant issues at hand in his ongoing corruption trial involve a friend of his named Dr. Salomon Melgen.
Melgen, who was found guilty earlier this year on charges of Medicare fraud, is a long-time donor to Menendez who was disputing $8.9 million in Medicare reimbursement costs related to an eye drug called Lucentis at the time of the indictment. Prosecutors have argued during the trial that Menendez accepted campaign donations, lavish trips, private flights and other benefits in exchange for advocating on behalf of Melgen’s business interests.
Conversely, Menendez stated in court filings that he was simply concerned that Medicare reimbursement policies were unfair and his friendship with Melgen was just that, nothing more. Some more salacious details involving Melgen’s many girlfriends being granted visas have also been discussed at the trial, although several of the women testified that Menendez did not pressure officials to issue their papers.
Several high-profile former officials have been called to the stand during the trial, including former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Obama-era Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Both stated that they took meetings at Menendez’s request to discuss Medicare billing issues, but testified that Melgen’s name was never specifically brought up during the talks.
So what lies ahead for New Jersey’s senior Senator, or his replacement if he’s forced out of office? If the case does get turned over to the jury, they could find him not guilty of the charges, which makes him likely to finish out his Senate term that runs through 2018. But the jury in the case could still convict the senator, and the ramifications could be far-reaching if they do.
If Menendez is forced to step down, New Jersey’s governor gets to appoint someone to the vacant seat. That would mean that currently, Chris Christie would get to decide who represents New Jersey through 2018, and he has indicated that he would appoint a Republican to serve the state. The GOP currently holds a narrow 52-48 seat majority in the Senate but has had trouble all year getting legislation passed along partisan lines, an issue that could perhaps change with an additional “yes” vote on their side.
However, Christie’s term expires in January and while there are no guarantees in politics, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy is favored by double digits to win next month’s Governor race. If Murphy does prevail and Menendez isn’t forced to step down from his seat until late January, Murphy would be in the Governor’s Mansion and assuredly will appoint a Democrat to the Senate.
However, Menendez’s lawyers are hoping to make all these scenarios a moot point. After the prosecution rested their case late Wednesday, Menendez’s team immediately moved to dismiss the case, citing a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reversed the corruption conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. That ruling, which has helped vacate several notable convictions in recent years, narrowed the definition of corruption to “an official act involving a formal exercise of governmental power, and must also be something specific and focused that is pending or may by law be brought before a public official.”
Some legal minds have argued the McDonnell ruling could save Menendez, as corruption has become harder to prove in court due to the decision. Judge William Walls, who is overseeing the Menendez case, has given attorneys on both sides the weekend to submit written briefs on the matter. Clarity on Bob Menendez’s future could come soon, as Walls will hear arguments on the dismissal motion next week.