Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez arrives at Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Court with his children Alicia and Robert on the opening day of his trial on public corruption charges. Menendez is on trial for multiple counts of fraud and bribery.
The corruption trial against U.S. Sen Bob Menendez began Wednesday in Newark. It is expected to last through October. The outcome of the trial could have major repercussions not only in New Jersey, but across the nation.
On a regional level, it’s about the fate of New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator, who, if found guilty would follow in the ignoble footsteps of New Jersey Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams, who was convicted in 1981 on bribery counts related to the Abscam scandal. Federal prosecutors charge Menendez accepted lavish gifts from ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen with the understanding that there was a quid pro quo when Melgen needed governmental assistance for himself or friends.
Menendez claims he and Melgen have a longstanding relationship and that the gifts were signs of that friendship, not proof of bribery.
On a national level, the Republican majority in the Senate could be affected by the outcome of the trial. If Menendez were found guilty, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to move to have the Senate expel Democrat Menendez. If that were happen – and happen before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office mid-January – Republican Christie would choose an interim replacement, a Republican, giving the GOP another vote in the Senate for at least a year.
Already, Republicans are trying to force New Jersey Democrats to commit to what they would do if Menendez is found guilty. Republicans will also put pressure on Democratic senators in red-leaning states to make the same pre-emptive pledge.
Make no mistake this is all about politics – not about justice. And it is all hypocrisy, the only truly bipartisan action taken by Congress in years.
Democrats would not be taking the high road if it were a Republican in the same situation. And we cannot ignore that the 2008 conviction of then U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was eventually overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Let us say at the outset of the Menendez trial, the Republican or Democratic tally in the Senate will not factor into our deliberations if the senator were to be found guilty. But what is important now is waiting to see whether in the end, he is innocent or guilty as charged.
And so we do not add to the hypocrisy, we have not always taken a wait-and-see attitude to public officials under indictment. We continued to demand that Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez resign after being charged with conspiracy, bribery and extortion. He did not. And Suarez was acquitted.
Our rationale at the time was we did not see how the mayor could both serve the people and prepare for a vigorous defense simultaneously. We are not eager to so quickly pass judgment going forward.
Each case, each office is different. The case against Menendez is a complicated one to understand although in the end it will turn on whether there was friendship or bribery.
We have no patience when it comes to public corruption. That will not change. In the coming weeks, we, like all New Jerseyans, will follow the testimony, courtroom motions and await a verdict.
The politics swirling in New Jersey and on Capitol Hill are interesting to watch, but they are sideshows to the main event: the corruption trial of a public servant. For now, that is all that matters. Let us have the trial before the verdict.