Mistrial in corruption case of New Jersey senator Robert Menendez


WASHINGTON (AFP) - One of the United States' highest-profile political corruption cases in decades ended in mistrial on Thursday (Nov 16) when a jury deadlocked on charges against Democratic Senator Robert Menendez.

After four days of deliberations jurors could not agree whether gifts of private jet flights, luxury vacations and substantial campaign donations from a wealthy friend to Menendez constituted crimes.

Speaking in tears at the end of the nine-week trial, Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey, lashed out at the FBI and prosecutors for pursuing a case that had no footing.

"I want to thank God because it was by his grace that I was delivered from an unjust prosecution," he said in front of the Newark, New Jersey federal courthouse.

"The way this case started was wrong. The way it was investigated was wrong," he said. "I've made my share of mistakes but my mistakes were never a crime."

Menendez was accused of using his office to aid the interests of a Florida ophthalmologist and campaign donor, Salomon Melgen.

Prosecutors alleged that he enjoyed gifts including stays in Melgen's Dominican Republic villa and the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme hotel, as well as lavish meals and golf outings and more than US$750,000 (S$1 million) in campaign contributions.

In return, he allegedly did favours such as helping a security company owned by Melgen win a lucrative contract in the Dominican Republic, and helped Melgen's Brazilian, Dominican and Ukrainian girlfriends obtain US visas.

He faced 14 charges including conspiracy and eight counts of bribery between 2006 and 2013.

Menendez received support during the trial from fellow Democratic senators as well as from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, whom Menendez said risked significant political capital to testify on his behalf.

He said he was doing his duty as a senator to help resolve business issues and aid people in need to get visas, without touching on the specific charges in the case.

"This is what happens when you put a real 25 year friendship on trial," his lawyer Abbe Lowell, one of the country's most prominent criminal defence attorneys, said.

Melgen remains on trial facing similar charges of bribery and corruption.

"I wish my dear friend Sal success in his continuing search for justice," Menendez said.

The last sitting US senator to be convicted of corruption was New Jersey Democrat Harrison Williams in 1981. Threatened with expulsion from the Senate, he finally resigned the next year.

Only 12 senators including Menendez have been indicted in US history, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said following the trial which "shed light on serious accusations of violating the public's trust".

The Senate's Code of Conduct may also have been contravened, McConnell said in a statement calling on the chamber's ethics committee to investigate Menendez's actions.