The on-going federal bribery trial of Senator Bob Menendez, expected to last up to two months, once again opens up the age old debate of when does a gift become a bribe? The trial of the New Jersey Democrat is centered on Menendez’s relationship with Dr. Salomon Melgen. Melgen, who made his fortune specializing in medical care, faces 18 counts of fraud and bribery. The multi-millionaire is alleged to have given the Senator flights, hotel stays and campaign funding in exchange for Menendez’s help with personal and professional issues.
The defense has focused on what they claim to be the genuine friendship between the pair, and therefore the non-political nature of Melgen’s gifts. Prosecutors have refuted this justification, asserting that friendship is no excuse for bribery, but the defense has maintained its focus insisting that ‘friendship is an absolute defense to bribery because when you’re friends and you do things for friends because they’re friends, there is no intent to bribe’. The trial has heard numerous anecdotes of evidence seeking to prove their close and personal relationship. The singling out of Melgen, the defense have even claimed represents an attack on the entire Hispanic American community.
In the mid 2000’s the uncovering of Washington’s most infamous lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, or ‘the man who bought Washington’, transformed the debate, as the country’s lawmakers sought to draw a clear line under the issue, the spotlight was put on lobbying like never before. The aftermath saw a hike in the legal penalties for those caught issuing freebies, and whilst rules prior to the scandal had barred lawmakers and senior staff members from accepting gifts worth over $50, the rules were rarely enforced. This changed, and lobbying firms were also put under new obligations to meet more stringent quarterly expense certification requirements, expanding on the existing requirements set out in the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Obama’s Executive Order in 2009, saw an even further clamp down with a ban, barring minor exceptions, on the acceptance of gifts from lobbyists to Political Appointees. The alleged tradeoff between Menendez and Melgen, focuses on claims that Menendez lobbied on a Medicare billing dispute, in addition to a contract dispute involving another Melgen company. Beyond business, the trial has also heard former senior advisor Mark Lopes testify that Menendez put direct pressure on furthering the visa applications of Melgen’s two sisters. Whilst the defense may have sufficient evidence of the pair’s close friendship, prosecutors will continue to refute the relevance of this.