The federal corruption case against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) may come down to what Politico calls a friendship test. Prosecutors yesterday accused Menendez of accepting lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Florida eye surgeon Saloman Melgen and in exchange using his office to secure visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends and trying to save the doctor millions of dollars in Medicare billing disputes. The case likely will boil down to whether prosecutors can convince a jury that the exchanges weren't part of a normal friendship. Menendez said “prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption.” Legal experts are putting their money on the prosecution.
While there doesn't appear to be a smoking gun showing that both parties understood that the gifts were given in exchange for Menendez advocating on Melgen's behalf, experts said the generosity will strike a jury as beyond the scope of a typical friendship. “These kinds of lavish gifts and these kinds of extensive favors really don't pass the smell test,” said Noah Bookbinder, formerly in the Justice Department's public integrity unit and now leading the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor now at Arent Fox's white-collar and investigations practice, said the evidence of corruption is stronger than prosecutors' successful case against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who was convicted on 11 counts of federal corruption last September.