REPORTING FROM NEWARK, N.J. — The Justice Department has dropped all charges against New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, in a decision that casts new doubt on the ability of government prosecutors to win bribery cases.
The department made the announcement in a filing on Wednesday, a week after U.S. District Judge William Walls threw out seven of the 18 charges against the New Jersey Democrat. The dismissed charges related to Menendez’s acceptance of campaign contributions from his friend, Salomon Melgen, a South Florida eye doctor.
The loss of the high-profile case is another blow to the department’s public integrity section and reflects the effect of a 2016 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, which narrowed the definition of corrupt acts by public officials.
A lawyer for Menendez said the senator was “pleased and grateful” about the decision. “Despite the five years of this ordeal, Sen. Menendez never wavered in his innocence and his commitment to the people of New Jersey,” said a statement by attorney Abbe Lowell.
Menendez was accused of accepting trips, hotel stays and campaign money from Melgen and using the power of his office to help Melgen with visas for his girlfriends and in a billing dispute with the Department of Health and Human Services.
After an 11-week trial in Newark last year, a jury failed to reach a verdict on any of the counts against either man. Afterward, jurors said they had voted overwhelmingly for acquittal.
Prosecutors had said they would retry Menendez and Melgen, but the judge’s ruling changed that calculation.
“Given the impact of the court’s Jan. 24 order on the charges and the evidence admissible in a retrial, the United States has determined that it will not retry the defendants on the remaining charges,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
Melgen, who was convicted separately in a Medicare fraud case in Florida, refused to cooperate with the government, hobbling the bribery case from the start. Without tapes or a cooperating witness talking about a bribery scheme, the government was forced to make a circumstantial case tying trips to favors. Menendez and Melgen, meanwhile, said the men had a long friendship, which explained their exchange of gifts.
Melgen never gave anything to Menendez, “his best friend of over 20 years, with any expectation of getting anything in return,” said his lawyer, Kirk Ogrosky. “We hope that the Department of Justice lives up to its name and never brings this type of meritless case again.”
Even after the charges and the trial, Menendez never wavered in his intent to seek reelection later this year. His poll ratings dipped dramatically during the trial, but he has a formidable network of political allies and $3.9 million on hand in his campaign bank account.
12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Menendez’s lawyer and additional information about his reelection plans.
9:40 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 9:10 a.m.