Politics

Menendez jury hears fiery tale of lies and bribes in closing arguments

Menendez maintains his innocence

NEWARK, New Jersey (CNN) - Attorneys offered jurors their closing arguments Thursday in the federal corruption trial of New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and wealthy ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, urging the jury in a final salvo to use their "common sense."

"Sen. Menendez held himself out as putting New Jersey first -- Dr. Melgen came calling with a better offer," federal prosecutor J.P. Cooney told jurors.

"Robert Menendez may have been elected to represent New Jersey, but Robert Menendez chose instead to represent the wealthy doctor from Florida -- he was Salomon Melgen's personal US senator," Cooney added. "This is what bribery looks like."

Throughout the trial, Menendez and Melgen have maintained their innocence, but the defense team went a step further Thursday, telling jurors that the case is an "absurd" and "terrifying" product of overzealous federal prosecutors run amok.

"They're lying to you," Melgen's defense attorney Kirk Ogrosky told jurors. "They're making up a story and trying to get the evidence to fit their story."

'Jaw-dropping'

Prosecutors accuse Menendez of pressuring high-level officials in the Obama administration and other career diplomats to help Melgen resolve his business disputes in exchange for political contributions, a luxurious hotel suite at the Park Hyatt in Paris, and free rides on Melgen's private jet that Menendez failed to report on his Senate disclosure form.

"Year after year, form after form, lie after lie," Cooney said. "Sen. Menendez was determined to hide all the evidence. He was determined to stop this day -- the day a jury in the court of law would get to determine the evidence and decide the truth."

Addressing the jury for nearly an hour and a half, Cooney used his closing to preemptively rebut many of the arguments defense attorneys have offered as reasons the jury should acquit and weave together a narrative of a long-running corruption scheme with the assistance of slides, photos and emails projected on a jumbo screen.

"Don't let the defendants use their friendship as a camouflage for their bribery," Cooney said. "(Menendez) should be accountable to the citizens he represents -- not to a wealthy doctor who lavished him with luxury trips and jaw-dropping campaign checks."

The heart of the Justice Department's case surrounds allegations that Menendez encouraged officials to help Melgen resolve a $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, pressured State Department officials to help Melgen settle a contractual dispute with the Dominican Republic, and contacted an ambassador to secure travel visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends -- "official acts" prosecutors claim put Menendez on the hook under federal bribery law.

"Who pulls out their checkbook and writes a $300,000 check?" Cooney added, referring to one of the political contributions Melgen made to a Democratic super PAC earmarked for New Jersey in May 2012. "How about someone trying to send a message -- someone with $8.9 million hanging in the balance. ... This looks like bribery because it's bribery."

Cooney told jurors that Menendez only paid Melgen back $58,500 for trips on private jet rides in 2013 after a Washington Post reporter began investigating their relationship and "he got caught," then playing a 2013 interview Menendez gave to CNN where he told Dana Bash the trips "fell through the cracks."

"Sen. Menendez wanted the public to believe then and the defense wants you to believe now that $58,500 fell through the cracks -- $58,500 does not fall through the cracks," Cooney said.

The courtroom was packed with a gaggle of clergy in support of Menendez, family members, spectators and some top brass from the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section as Cooney gave his closing argument.

'They're lying'

In Melgen's defense, Ogrosky said the entire case rests on speculation.

"They have no evidence of a bribe, no evidence of a corrupt agreement, no evidence of a conspiracy," Ogrosky said, "no witness, no document, no email, no text message -- no nothing."

Speaking to the jury for roughly an hour, Ogrosky said the Justice Department became so invested in litigating this case, that prosecutors have now taken emails out of context.

"Think about what these prosecutors have done -- it's actually pretty terrifying," Ogrosky said, further suggesting that prosecutors presented "misleading testimony" by calling "the least knowledgeable witness" in certain instances.

He also suggested to jurors that if Melgen truly had Menendez "on retainer," one would expect to see evidence that he called the senator when he stood to make millions by having the Environmental Protection Agency pass a rule, but there is none.

'What did (Melgen) do when he had a problem? He hired an attorney," Ogrosky told jurors. "That's a hell of a bribe to spend millions on attorneys when you have a senator on retainer."

Ogrosky also pointed out the timing of the prosecution's theory -- that the bribes stopped when the "Washington Post busted them" in November 2012, doesn't add up when prosecutors have additionally suggested that in January 2013 Menendez's staff tried to block US Customs and Border Protection from delivering extra cargo-scanning equipment to the Dominican Republic (because Melgen had conflicting contractual interests in providing his own scanning equipment to the island).

"Sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer -- these two men are friends," he said.

Ogrosky tag-teamed his closing with another attorney, Jonathan Cogan, who showed jurors several photographs of Menendez and Melgen vacationing together in the Dominican Republic, including one with the two gathered around a dinner table.

"I see someone who is down there spending time with friends," Cogan told jurors. "This is not what a bribe looks like."

"Dr. Melgen just flies people around," Cogan added later. "Is there a duffel bag stuffed with cash? Is there some sort of Swiss bank account? No, there's none of that."

Heading into federal court Thursday morning, Menendez expressed confidence the jury will ultimately acquit him, saying, "I believe that verdict will be of innocence. The government has not proven its case because there is no case to prove and that was their version all along."

Menendez's defense attorney Abbe Lowell will do his closing arguments Monday, followed by rebuttal remarks from the prosecution.

The case is expected to go to the jury for deliberations early next week.