NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A former State Department official testified Monday he didn't feel threatened by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez during a 2012 meeting about a port security contract in the Dominican Republic, casting some doubt on one of the key assertions in the government's bribery case against the New Jersey Democrat.
Prosecutors allege Menendez threatened William Brownfield, the recently retired head of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, with the prospect of holding a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Menendez was a member.
An indictment charges Menendez put pressure on Brownfield on behalf of Menendez's friend and co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, because the Dominican government was refusing to honor a contract with Melgen's company to provide port screening equipment.
The indictment alleges Melgen bribed Menendez with free flights on his private jet and luxury vacations. Menendez and Melgen deny a bribery agreement and say they exchanged gifts as an expression of their longtime friendship.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors showed jurors an email in which an aide to Brownfield who attended the meeting wrote that Menendez "threatened to hold a hearing on the matter if we don't meet the deadline."
Brownfield said Monday it would have been difficult to convene a hearing on such a specific issue. He also testified he later raised the issue briefly with the Dominican president without mentioning specifics.
The trial is in its eighth week. Attorneys for Menendez and Melgen began mounting their defense last week and are seeking to demonstrate that Menendez's meetings and interactions with Brownfield and other government officials — including the head of the Department of Health and Human Services and the acting Medicare administrator — focused on broader policy issues and not on Melgen's specific business interests.
The most serious charge the two men face, honest services fraud, carries a maximum prison term of 20 years.