(NEWARK, N.J.) — Gifts from a wealthy friend or bribes?
It’s the question at the center of the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and a Florida eye doctor that starts Wednesday in Newark and promises to put the very business of governing under a microscope.
Menendez told reporters before entering the courthouse that “not once have I dishonored my public office.”
Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen are charged with a conspiracy in which, prosecutors say, Menendez lobbied for Melgen’s business interests in exchange for political donations and gifts that included luxury vacations, flights on Melgen’s plane and stays at his private villa in an exclusive Dominican Republic resort frequented by celebrities including Beyonce and Jay Z.
The indictment also alleges Menendez pressured State Department officials to give visas to three young women described as Melgen’s girlfriends.
The men both pleaded not guilty, and Menendez has vehemently denied the allegations. Defense lawyers say that the trips described as bribes were examples of friends vacationing together, that most of Melgen’s contributions went to committees Menendez didn’t control and that he didn’t control the people he lobbied on Melgen’s behalf.
“I’m looking forward to finally having the opportunity to seek exoneration,” Menendez said recently. “I do believe we’ll be exonerated. I did nothing wrong, and I did nothing illegal.”
Menendez is up for re-election next year. If he is convicted and steps down or is forced out of the Senate by a two-thirds majority vote before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican governor would pick a successor.
While a Democrat has a large…