NEWARK, N.J. — The fact that the jury in the trial of Sen. Bob Menendez couldn’t reach a verdict and was apparently in favor of acquitting the Democrat and a wealthy friend supported the defense’s theory that their friendship carried more weight than the criminal allegations, a defense attorney in the case said Wednesday.
In the first extended comments by the defense team since last week’s mistrial, Jonathan Cogan also said he doesn’t expect the Department of Justice to spend a long time determining whether to retry the pair, though he didn’t expect a hasty decision. The department hasn’t divulged its plans, and a spokeswoman didn’t comment Wednesday.
There has been no deadline set by the judge for the government to say whether it will seek a retrial. Menendez is expected to run for re-election next year, though he hasn’t officially announced his campaign.
Menendez and longtime friend Salomon Melgen are charged with conspiracy, bribery and fraud. A 2015 indictment charged the Florida eye doctor lavished the New Jersey Democrat with gifts including flights on his private jet and luxury hotel stays in exchange for Menendez using his influence with executive branch officials to help Melgen’s businesses.
Cogan and the rest of the defense team outlined their strategy in opening statements and stuck to it for the entire 11-week trial: Menendez and Melgen were longtime friends, not conspirators, they said, and that the gifts were part of that friendship. He said the jury’s leanings “appear to reflect what we were saying from the beginning.” One juror said the panel was 10-2 to acquit the men.
“The government kept saying throughout the trial that friends can bribe friends, and as a technical legal matter, that’s true,” Cogan said. “But the question presented here wasn’t whether it’s possible, but whether it’s fair to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether that’s what happened here. When you have a close friendship, which the government had no way to dispute, our argument is that even if you’re left unsure about what happened, you can’t conclude beyond a reasonable doubt there was bribery.”
Prosecutor Peter Koski reminded jurors during his closing argument that friends can engage in bribery — a fact bolstered by the judge’s instructions that gifts “given both out of friendship and a corrupt intent” can be illegal. But not enough jurors bought it.
“They are friends,” said Evelyn Arroyo-Maultsby, a juror who was excused early for a pre-arranged vacation. “If I was rich and if I had a lot of money and I want to take my friend somewhere, why can’t I?”
Cogan said the defense team’s spirits were bolstered somewhat when Arroyo-Maultsby told reporters she favored acquittal on all 18 counts, but that no one began a premature celebration.
“You’re happy to hear somebody understood what your defense was and that it resonated with them,” he said. “But in my experience, from having gone through this a number of times, deliberations are dynamic and you don’t know what happens when you bring a new person in.”
Contact Porter at https://www.twitter.com/DavidPorter_AP