NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — After nine weeks of testimony and nearly eight hours of closing arguments spread over two days, a jury began deliberating Monday in the bribery trial of Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and a longtime friend in a case that could have implications for a deeply divided Senate in the event of a conviction.
If the Democratic senator is convicted and steps down or is voted out by a two-thirds majority before New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the term-limited Republican governor could appoint a replacement. A Democrat holds a comfortable lead in polls ahead of Tuesday's gubernatorial election.
Menendez is charged with accepting trips on a private jet, luxury vacations and other gifts from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for pressuring government officials to resolve Melgen's $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, a port screening contract in the Dominican Republic and other issues.
Melgen also contributed more than $600,000 to political organizations that supported Menendez directly or indirectly.
The men's friendship predated the alleged bribery conspiracy by more than a decade, and that relationship "destroys each and every one of the counts" against him, Abbe Lowell told jurors in his closing argument Monday.
In a rebuttal argument, Justice Department attorney Peter Koski quoted a passage from the jury instructions that said friendship can't be used as a defense against bribery in all cases.
"The issue in this case is not whether Sen. Menendez and Dr. Melgen were friends — the issue in this case is whether they committed a crime together," he said.
Prosecutors characterized Menendez as Melgen's "personal senator" during their closing argument last week, but Lowell told jurors the government presented no evidence of an actual agreement between the two men. He said prosecutors instead "desperately tried to create a quid pro quo by listing dates on one side and dates on the other side, and that vast divide in the middle they cannot fill."
He assailed the government for its use of an FBI agent to introduce evidence such as emails and documents relating to meetings Menendez had and interactions with his staffers, rather than calling the actual people to testify,
Prosecutors want jurors to "assume, fill in the gap, guess and speculate about what happened," Lowell said.
Neither man testified, but their attorneys deny any bribery arrangement and say the gifts were reflective of their longtime friendship. Menendez contends his meetings and interactions with officials from the departments of State, Commerce and Health and Human Services were on policy issues and not to lobby for Melgen.
On Monday, Koski accused the defense of having a strategy that "comes down to distraction and misdirection."
Though Menendez may have had interest in broader policy issues when he met with government officials, Koski said, "he was working under the influence of Melgen's gifts. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the law calls bribery."
Menendez served in the U.S. House from 1993 until filling the Senate seat vacated when Democrat Jon Corzine became New Jersey governor in 2006.
The trial is the first major federal bribery trial since a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturned the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and narrowed the definition of official bribery. The judge in the Menendez trial used wording directly from the McDonnell opinion in giving his instructions to the jury last week.
This story has been corrected to show Christie's last day in office is Jan. 16, not Jan. 18.