The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a long-shot appeal from Sen. Robert Menendez, clearing the way for a criminal corruption trial that could begin as early as this fall.
The New Jersey Democrat argued unsuccessfully that his prosecution violates the Constitution’s speech-or-debate clause, which limits investigations into the legislative work of members of Congress. The court rejected the appeal as part of a list of orders released Monday, making no further comment.
“As the senator has been saying for more than four years since the government began chasing these wild allegations, he has always acted in accordance with the law,” Menendez’s attorney Abbe Lowell said in a statement. “Senator Menendez remains confident that he will be vindicated when all the facts are heard at trial.”
While Menendez understood that it’s rare for the Supreme Court to hear a case before trial, “given the gravity of the Constitutional issues raised, he believed it was important to try,” Lowell said.
Menendez is accused of taking almost $1 million, most of it in campaign donations and luxury travel, in exchange for his intervention on behalf of Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, who was involved in several disputes with the U.S. government.
The Constitution says members of Congress can’t be held to account “for any speech or debate in either house.” A federal appeals court, ruling in July 2016, said the speech-or-debate clause didn’t shield Menendez because he was lobbying on behalf of a particular person, rather than trying to influence a broader government policy.
The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal, which stemmed from a prosecution that began when Barack Obama was president.
Prosecutors say Menendez intervened to help the ophthalmologist in a Medicare overbilling case, a contract dispute with the Dominican Republic, and visa applications for three girlfriends. Menendez and Melgen have pleaded not guilty, and the senator called the case an attempt to prosecute over the men’s 20-year friendship. Melgen is on trial in West Palm Beach, Florida, in a separate Medicare-fraud case.
In its ruling last year, the appellate court said the question of whether Menendez deserved constitutional immunity turned on whether five specific actions were “inherently legislative,” as the senator claimed. While Menendez’s informal efforts were “ambiguously legislative in nature,” U.S. District Judge William Walls correctly found that meetings and emails showed his actions were “essentially lobbying on behalf of a particular party,” the appellate court said.
“The predominant purpose of the challenged acts was to pursue a political resolution to Dr. Melgen’s disputes and not to discuss broader issues of policy, vet a presidential nominee or engage in informal information gathering for legislation,” the appellate panel wrote. “It was not to engage in true legislative oversight or otherwise influence broad matters of policy.”
Lowell said he was disappointed that the Supreme Court didn’t “set a clear, bright line of the separation of powers to ensure that Congress remains an independent and co-equal branch of government, free of interference and retribution from the executive as the framers intended.”
Walls said last year he would set a trial for Menendez and Melgen for this fall in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, depending on the outcome of the senator’s appeal.
Menendez is the 12th senator charged with a crime while in office, and the first since Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who was found guilty in 2008 of seven corruption-related felonies. The verdict was set aside in 2009 because of misconduct by prosecutors. Stevens was killed in a 2010 plane crash.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Greg Stohr, David Voreacos