NEW YORK (Reuters) – For the first time since the “Abscam” scandal 36 years ago, a sitting U.S. senator will go on trial for bribery on Wednesday in a federal courthouse.
Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, is accused of intervening with federal officials on behalf of a wealthy benefactor in exchange for lavish gifts, including luxury vacations and major political contributions.
The trial could have an outsized impact in Washington, D.C., where Republicans maintain a razor-thin edge in the Senate. If Menendez is convicted and either resigns or is expelled by his colleagues before January, his replacement would be named by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and staunch supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The case is also a high-profile test of the ability of federal prosecutors to go after elected officials for bribery, after the U.S. Supreme Court last year narrowed the grounds for such charges.
Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday in Newark, New Jersey, and the trial is expected to last up to two months.
Menendez, 63, who has served in the Senate since 2006, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. He is running for reelection in 2018 despite the 12-count corruption indictment.
The case centers on the relationship between Menendez and his co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist who gave him private flights, expensive vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to his campaigns.
Prosecutors say those gifts were actually bribes to persuade Menendez to press Melgen’s interests in Washington.
The senator met with Medicare’s top administrator, as well as a member of the cabinet, in an effort to get Medicare’s reimbursement policy changed so Melgen could avoid paying millions of dollars the agency said he owed, according to the charges.
Menendez also enlisted the State Department to try to resolve a dispute between one of Melgen’s companies and the Dominican Republic.
Menendez’s lawyers plan to argue that Melgen’s gifts were just a result of the pair’s close friendship, and that any actions the senator took were based on legitimate policy concerns.
Melgen, 63, was convicted earlier this year of perpetrating a massive Medicare fraud. His sentencing has been postponed until after the New Jersey trial.
The last senator to go on trial for corruption while still in office was another New Jersey senator, Harrison Williams, who was convicted in 1981 as part of the public corruption “sting” operation popularly known as “Abscam.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio