After the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan announced corruption charges last Friday against Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the veteran Democratic lawmaker lashed back, calling the claims false and saying prosecutors had “misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office.” Menendez's assertion offered a clue to the defense he may invoke, if his case goes to trial, one that other public officials facing corruption charges have used successfully, the New York Times reports. In a series of rulings since 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly narrowed the legal definition of corruption, leading to overturned convictions of prominent politicians. Investigators found gold bars and cash-stuffed envelopes in Menendez’s home, and several legal experts said they believed the charges in the 39-page indictment could withstand the kinds of legal challenges that defense lawyers have successfully used in the past.
“It’s true that the Supreme Court keeps narrowing the scope of what is permissible for the government to pursue,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor of criminal law at New York University. “But I do think that this case falls into the heartland of what’s always been permissible, because as I read it, this is classic bribery.” David Oscar Markus, a Miami trial lawyer, cautioned against the rush to judgment of many of Menendez’s critics, who he said have simply accepted the government’s version. “They’re willing to convict him without ever hearing from the defense,” said Markus. “The first thing that I think is important for any criminal defense lawyer to do is not to take anything in that indictment as true or at face value, and to question every single paragraph.” The indictment charges that Menendez, 69, who as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held sway over military sales, financing, and other aid, secretly took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including gold bullion, in return for helping the government of Egypt. The government also charged the senator’s wife, Nadine Menendez, and three New Jersey businessmen. One, Wael Hana, is an Egyptian American who prosecutors say maintained close connections with Egyptian military and intelligence officials and was a linchpin in the scheme that funneled the money to the senator and his wife. Menendez, his wife, and the three other defendants all pleaded not guilty.