Two months after a jury failed to reach a verdict in the federal corruption case against Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen, the Justice Department on Friday said it wants to retry them — and soon.
“The United States files this notice of intent to retry the defendants and requests that the Court set the case for retrial at the earliest possible date,” reads the one-paragraph notice signed by AnnaLou Tirol, acting chief of the department’s public integrity section. “Defendants Robert Menendez and Salomon Melgen have been indicted for bribery and corruption by two separate grand juries properly impaneled in the District of New Jersey. The first trial ended in a mistrial with a deadlocked jury. An early retrial date is in the best interests of the public, and the United States is available to schedule a retrial at the Court’s earliest convenience.”
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Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, is up for reelection this year.
“We regret that the DOJ, after spending millions and millions of taxpayer dollars, and failing to prove a single allegation in a court of law, has decided to double down on an unjust prosecution,” read a statement from Menendez’s office. “Evidently, they did not hear the overwhelming voices of the New Jerseyans who served on the jury this fall. Senator Menendez fully intends to be vindicated — again.”
Kirk Ogrosky, an attorney for Melgen, said he was “very disappointed” the Justice Department would retry the case.
“Anyone who watched the testimony, reviewed the exhibits, and spoke to the jurors and the alternates in the first trial knows that this prosecution was ridiculous and should never have been brought,” he said.
Menendez and Melgen’s first trial took place more than two years after they were indicted in 2015. Federal authorities allege Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor, provided Menendez with private jet flights, lavish vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions. In exchange, Menendez allegedly went to bat for Melgen with federal officials to help his financial interests in a $9 million Medicare billing dispute and a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
The federal government also alleges Menendez secured tourist visas for three of the married Melgen’s young foreign girlfriends and one of their sisters in exchange for the gifts.
“The conduct alleged in the indictment is serious and warrants retrial before a jury of citizens in the District of New Jersey,” DOJ spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement. “The decision to retry this case was made based on the facts and the law, following a careful review. The charges contained in an indictment are merely accusations, and defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
Neither the DOJ filing nor Hornbuckle’s statement indicated whether the department intends to retry Menendez on all 12 counts against him, 11 of which were bribery and one of which was filing false reports.
The retrial, though likely, is not a certainty. Two weeks after U.S. District Court Judge William Walls declared the mistrial, Menendez’s lawyers filed a motion for acquittal. Walls has not yet ruled on that motion.
The first trial began in September and included more than 100 witnesses and thousands of documents. But the jury deadlocked in November and a mistrial was declared. One juror told reporters the jury was 10-2 in favor of acquittal on most counts.
Melgen also faces the prospect of decades in prison from a Medicare fraud conviction in a separate case.
Menendez plans to run for reelection, and Democrats around the state had already coalesced around him. But the prospect of a retrial in the middle of his reelection year has the potential to upend that decision and his commitments, and will almost certainly lead to a new round of Democrats positioning themselves to succeed him.
Asked if his support for Menendez would change, Democratic State Chairman John Currie said he was still processing the news.
“I want to hear from the senator. I’m a supporter of the senator. I have always been an avid supporter of the senator,” Currie said. “And before I would make a comment, I’d first want to have a conversation with him, get his feelings and then talk to the rest of my colleagues.”
In the lead-up to Menendez’s first trial, which began in September, some Democrats quietly felt out support for a Senate run in the event Menendez was convicted.
Former Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli was open about his intention to run for the seat if Menendez had to vacate it. Menendez resented that, and in front of the federal courthouse in Newark after his mistrial was declared, Menendez made a now-famous statement about Democrats seeking his seat: “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you.”
If Menendez stays on the ballot, Republicans would have an opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in New Jersey in a year in which the Senate map is already unfavorable to Democrats.
Although New Jersey often elects Republican governors, the same isn’t true for senators. The last time a Republican won a U.S. Senate election in New Jersey was 1972.
The first trial took its toll on Menendez’s popularity, with 51 percent of New Jersey voters saying in a recent survey that he does not deserve reelection.
At least one wealthy Republican, pharmaceutical executive Robert Hugin, is considering a run for Menendez’s seat.