Svitlana Buchyk, genius
Here are the highlights from Tuesday’s proceedings in the federal corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.
Menendez, a Democrat and New Jersey’s senior senator, is charged with doing official favors for his friend and co-defendant, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, in exchange for expensive hotel stays, private jet flights and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
NEWARK — A former girlfriend of Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen fumed at prosecutors as they questioned her Tuesday afternoon during the federal corruption trial of Melgen and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.
“I’ve been better,” Svitlana Buchyk, a model and actress who was in her early 20s when prosecutors say Menendez allegedly helped her secure a visa to visit the United States, told Melgen attorney Kirk Ogrosky when he asked how she was doing.
Buchyk, who was born in the Ukraine and grew up in Spain, was one of four women — three of them 20-something girlfriends to the 63-year-old married Melgen — for whom Menendez, a Democrat, allegedly pressured officials to get visas in exchange for vacations, private jet flights and political donations. Another former girlfriend, Rosiell Polanco Suero, also testified Tuesday about Menendez’s help securing her a visa.
Buchyk had the Newark courtroom laughing at some of her answers. At one point, she had trouble remembering exactly how long she had spent with prosecutors preparing for her testimony.
“It just seems very long when I’m around them,” she said.
When Ogrosky asked Buchyk if she knew why she was in the courtroom, she let out a long, exasperated “no.”
“No, I don’t know why I’m here. He’s just forcing me to be here,” she said, referring to lead prosecutor Peter Koski, whom she at least once addressed by his first name.
Buchyk said she first met Melgen in Spain, and the fact that her mother needed surgery came up in conversation. That’s why Melgen sought to help her and her mother secure tourist visas to the United States, she said.
Buchyk said she met Menendez, New Jersey’s senior senator, during her first visit to the U.S., over dinner at a Miami restaurant with him and Melgen. Prosecutor Peter Koski asked her if Melgen said anything at the dinner “about the role that Senator Menendez played in helping you get your visa.”
“It’s a very long time ago and it’s very hard to remember exact conversations, and it’s very hard to talk to you because you get picky with every word that I say,” Buchyk fumed. “But it was nothing but ‘this is the person that helped you with your visa.’”
Buchyk said Melgen said it in a “joking way.”
She also said Melgen described Menendez as his “hermano,” or “brother,” something the defense has sought to highlight as a way to show the two men had a deep friendship, but not a corrupt relationship.
“Before I knew he was a senator, I knew it was his best friend,” Buchyk said.
During his line of questioning, Koski suggested Melgen referred to others as “hermano” as well. Buchyk said the reference was only to people who were “like his family.”
Polanco Suero testified through a Spanish translator about an initial 2008 interview in the Dominican Republic at which she and her then 18-year-old sister, Korall, applied for visas to visit Melgen in Florida over Christmas.
After waiting several hours to see an official, Polanco said the interaction was brief and rude, and that the official did not look at documents she brought to support her visa application.
The applications were denied, according to case notes on State Department documents from the worker who heard the case, because “neither [woman] is working, no solvency on their own, not fully convinced of motives for travel.” The documents also indicated the women had “no previous travel.”
Polanco told Melgen, who then told Menendez, that the visas were denied, according to testimony and documents.
According to other testimony, Menendez then reached out to the ambassador and consul general to the Dominican Republic. After that, Polanco testified, she and her sister were granted a second interview without having to reapply.
Prosecutors stressed that in contrast to waiting hours the first time, the two came to a nearly empty consulate and almost immediately saw an official who granted their visa application on the spot.
Prosecutors later called Joel Nantais, division chief of the State Department’s Office of Field Operations, to discuss the application process.
“How common is it for a United States senator to call an ambassador to intervene on a visa application?” Koski asked Nantais.
“In my experience, it’s not that common,” Nantais said, adding that consulate officials generally do not look at applicants’ documents because of potential forgeries.
The defense pointed out apparent problems with the Polanco sisters’ initial interview, noting that despite the consular official’s claim that the women had never traveled, Korall Polanco’s application said she was a student in Madrid.
“So if she came in here and said I presented all these papers and the woman who looked at them didn’t even look at them, she just denied me, that sounds about right, doesn’t it?” Ogrosky said.
Judge William H. Walls stopped Ogrosky, saying his line of questioning “invites speculation.”
Menendez lawyer Abbe Lowell also noted alleged problems with the application process in an apparent attempt to show it deserved Menendez’s attention.
“So it is not uncommon for there to be a congressional inquiry to either a consul general or an ambassador if something is brought to that office’s attention that something didn’t go right the first time?” Lowell asked.
“It’s common that we hear from congressional staff,” Nantais said. “The member reaching out themselves is less common, in my experience.”
The trial is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
NEWARK — A high-ranking aide to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez criticized him in 2009 for lobbying ambassadors to secure visas for the girlfriends of Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.
In a November 2009 email, the adviser, Mark Lopes, wrote to chief of staff Danny O’Brien that Menendez “does not need to be calling U.S. ambassadors about stuff like this,” according to portions of the letter read in court while the jury was outside the room.
Most of the email will not be seen by the jury, because Judge William Walls said it would violate a court rule that excludes relevant evidence for prejudice.
Instead, Walls ruled that the jury would see only a small portion of the email because it appears to contradict earlier statements by Lopes — a former senior policy adviser to Menendez called by the prosecution as a witness— that the actions he took to help Menendez secure visas for Melgen’s girlfriends were so routine that he did not remember them.
According to portions of the letter read by Walls outside the presence of the jury, Lopes told O’Brien that Menendez had “done this several times in the past” and expressed concern about “when a U.S. ambassador meets RM for the first time because RM is trying to help get visas for women for Sal M.”
In another portion of the email quoted by prosecutor J.P. Cooney, Lopes wrote that Menendez “degrades his reputation in the ambassadorial ranks throughout the state department.” Lopes, who is now executive director of the inter-American Development Bank, also praised Menendez in the email, calling him a “statesman” and “top notch” on foreign policy.
Prosecutors charge that securing visas for three Melgen girlfriends and one of their sisters was among the favors Menendez performed for Melgen in exchange for private jet flights, lavish vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
Cooney said he wanted to “impeach” Lopes as a witness because the email appears to contradict his earlier testimony. Cooney also said the email, sent from Lopes’ private account to O’Brien’s private account, demonstrated Lopes’ intent to hide their correspondence because Lopes at one point said “taking this thread offline.”
“This is a powerful document of impeachment, and even with redactions, your honor, I think it is telling as to the witness’ credibility,” Cooney said.
Menendez attorney Raymond Brown said that even though Melgen was mentioned in the email, what spurred it was was actually a request by New Jersey attorney Donald Scarinci — a close friend of Menendez’s — to get his daughter an internship.
“This email is about something that has no relationship to Sal Melgen,” Brown said.