At Me­nen­dez trial: Emails, high emo­tions and wit­ness en­nui

Se­na­tor’s friend­ship with eye doc­tor un­der scru­tiny in first full week

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ALAN MAIMON AND DEVLIN BAR­RETT Bar­rett re­ported from Wash­ing­ton.

ne­wark — Ukrainian-born model Svit­lana Buchyk was a less-than-ideal wit­ness for fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors this week in the bribery trial of Sen. Robert Me­nen­dez.

Though she was called by the pros­e­cu­tion, Buchyk’s tes­ti­mony un­der­cut the govern­ment’s case on some points. She said the New Jersey Demo­crat and his co-de­fen­dant, Florida eye doc­tor Salomon Mel­gen, were very close — un­der­min­ing the no­tion that the doc­tor had bribed the se­na­tor in ex­change for govern­ment fa­vors.

Buchyk was asked at one point whether she knew why she was in the Ne­wark fed­eral court­room.

“No. I don’t know why I’m here. He has just been forc­ing me to be here,” she said, re­fer­ring to the lead pros­e­cu­tor, Peter Koski. “That’s why I’m here.”

Pros­e­cu­tors say that Buchyk was a for­mer girl­friend of Mel­gen’s and that when she wanted a visa to come to the United States, Me­nen­dez helped her get one. That help, ac­cord­ing to the Jus­tice Depart­ment, was part of a years-long pat­tern of cor­rup­tion in which the wealthy doc­tor gave the se­na­tor pri­vate flights, a ho­tel stay and in­di­rect cam­paign do­na­tions in ex­change for us­ing his in­flu­ence as a se­na­tor to help Mel­gen with per­sonal and pro­fes­sional is­sues.

But in her tes­ti­mony Tues­day, Buchyk made clear she was not on the side of the govern­ment.

“Just very frus­trat­ing,’’ she said at one point, an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to be­ing called as a wit­ness. She also drew laugh­ter in the court­room when she com­plained about her time with the pros­e­cu­tors, say­ing, “It just seems like very long when I’m around them, but it’s very, very long.”

When U.S. Dis­trict Judge Wil­liam Walls told her she could leave the wit­ness stand, the model ex­claimed “Wow!” and pumped her arms in the air. She smiled at Mel­gen as she left the court­room.

Af­ter the first full week of tes­ti­mony, the le­gal strat­egy for both sides in the Me­nen­dez trial is crys­tal clear. Through flight records, emails and wit­ness tes­ti­mony, pros­e­cu­tors with the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s pub­lic-in­tegrity sec­tion are try­ing to show the jury that time and again, Me­nen­dez sought to use his role as a se­na­tor to help Mel­gen, even though Mel­gen was not a New Jersey con­stituent.

The de­fense strat­egy, drawn out of tes­ti­mony from Buchyk and oth­ers, is equally plain: Con­vince the jury the se­na­tor had no in­ten­tion of tak­ing a bribe or act­ing cor­ruptly. In­stead, they in­sist, he was a de­voted friend to Mel­gen — the two men so close they called each other “her­mano,” the Span­ish word for brother. The two weren’t try­ing to hide their re­la­tion­ship in any way, and that shows they are in­no­cent, de­fense lawyers have ar­gued.

The Me­nen­dez trial is not a fight over facts but mean­ing. When Mel­gen gave Me­nen­dez gifts, such as a nearly $5,000 stay in a lux­ury Paris ho­tel, was that a bribe or a gift from a friend? When Me­nen­dez did things for Mel­gen, such as in­ter­cede with fed­eral health of­fi­cials when the doc­tor got into an $8.9 mil­lion billing dis­pute with the govern­ment, was that an ef­fort to clear up some bu­reau­cratic con­fu­sion or a cor­rupt at­tempt to get a dis­hon­est friend out of trou­ble?

Emails are a cen­tral pil­lar of the case, of­fer­ing what pros­e­cu­tors say are telling clues of the se­na­tor’s in­ten­tions.

A key bit of ev­i­dence of­fered at trial Thurs­day was a series of emails, start­ing with one from a Wash­ing­ton Post reporter in Novem­ber 2012 to a Me­nen­dez staffer, ask­ing about the se­na­tor’s trav­els on Mel­gen’s plane.

The Post reporter asked whether Mel­gen had taken a trip to the Do­mini­can Repub­lic in 2010 on Mel­gen’s pri­vate jet and whether he had got­ten a let­ter from the Se­nate Ethics Com­mit­tee ap­prov­ing such ac­tiv­ity.

Three weeks af­ter that query, Me­nen­dez got a quote from Mel­gen for the cost of the trips that had oc­curred two years ear­lier. The se­na­tor re­im­bursed the doc­tor for two of those flights, at a cost of $58,500.

In a case in which the ju­rors will be asked to in­fer what Me­nen­dez thought he was do­ing when he took things from Mel­gen, and when he did things for him, the fact that the pay­ment came only af­ter a reporter asked about it could prove sig­nif­i­cant. The pay­ment also re­flects how Me­nen­dez was in some ways al­ready boxed in by Se­nate ethics rules by the time the ques­tion was raised.

El­liot Berke, a lawyer spe­cial­iz­ing in con­gres­sional ethics is­sues, said the Se­nate’s gift rule “al­lows se­na­tors to pay mar­ket value to pre­vent a gift from be­ing given, or to avoid an im­per­mis­si­ble gift. So it ap­pears that’s why Se­na­tor Me­nen­dez de­cided to pay for the flights.’’

The trial is ex­pected to last two months, though Walls has re­peat­edly voiced frus­tra­tion that the lawyers may drag it out through ex­tended ques­tion­ing. The judge has had a short fuse at the trial, chastis­ing the lawyers mul­ti­ple times a day when he thinks they are stray­ing from the rules of court pro­ce­dure.

Though he has re­peat­edly warned the pros­e­cu­tors not to try to cre­ate a “tabloid” at­mo­sphere, it’s the judge who has shown the most emo­tion so far.

On Thurs­day, he ex­ploded at both sides for not heed­ing his prior warn­ings.

“Some of you are so ar­ro­gant in your ac­tiv­i­ties that you think I’m ig­nor­ing your dis­re­gard of what I told you,” he said. “I have no dog in this fight. I don’t care who wins or loses. But you have to fol­low the rules of en­gage­ment.”

Like a teacher call­ing out mis­be­hav­ing stu­dents, Walls then went down the long line of at­tor­neys for both sides and asked them in­di­vid­u­ally to agree to abide by the rules.

At other points, though, Walls has tried to lower the tem­per­a­ture in the court­room. When a for­mer Me­nen­dez staffer fin­ished tes­ti­fy­ing Tues­day, the judge jok­ingly urged him to “run.”

The wit­ness, Mark Lopes, replied: “I will. Thank you.”

Sen. Robert Me­nen­dez (D)

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