Case dismissed

Case dismissed

What happens when a public official accepts money from a donor and then does favors for the donor? Sometimes, nothing.

A couple months ago, a federal jury in New Jersey could not reach a verdict in the corruption trial of U.S. Robert Menendez.

Last week, a federal judge dismissed multiple charges against Menendez, a Democrat, and, earlier this week, prosecutors decided to drop the case altogether.

Their decision makes sense, mostly because the government failed to prove Menendez's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at the first trial. Their chances would hardly have been any better at a second. After all, the vote for not guilty was a lopsided 10-2.

So it will be up to voters, not jurors, to decide Menendez's future as he seeks re-election. Given the complicated and conflicting facts of the case, that's about as reasonable an outcome as there could be.

While the evidence in the Menendez trial showed that he was a regular beneficiary of a wide variety of financial favors from a wealthy Florida eye doctor, prosecutors could not show that the numerous political favors Menendez did for Dr. Salomon Melgen were part of a corrupt agreement, in other words a quid pro quo.

After all, the defense demonstrated that Menendez and Melgen were close, lifelong friends who vacationed together, socialized together and kept in close touch.

The facts, while reflecting poorly on the state of our politics, were insufficient in jurors' eyes to demonstrate Menendez was motivated by Melgen's financial support to act as he did on his friend's behalf.

There is, however, no question about Melgen's criminal liability. While he escaped conviction in this case, he's serving a lengthy prison sentence for using his medical practice to defraud the federal government of substantial sums of money.

The case raises questions about the government's ability to obtain convictions in cases of this nature in light of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning a corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell was convicted on corruption charges after he accepted gifts from wealthy Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., allegedly to advance a dietary supplement Williams' company had developed.

In that case, McDonnell arranged for Williams to meet with state officials and make a pitch for his product. The governor also hosted a reception in which the businessman touted the wares he was promoting.

But the high court said those did not qualify as the kind of "official acts" that would support a corruption conviction. It characterized them as the kind of political favors elected officials regularly perform for constituents.

In that case, while spending considerably to earn McDonnell's favor, the businessman didn't get the kind of assistance he was seeking from the state because state officials weren't convinced of the value of the product the businessman was selling.

So mere acceptance of gifts, campaign donations and whatever else was involved in the Menendez case is only half of what the law requires to sustain a conviction in these kind of corruption cases. The government also must show that financial favors are traded for "official acts" to prove corruption.

There are, of course, ways to deal with part of this problem without resorting to federal criminal prosecutions.

At the time McDonnell and his family members accepted financial favors from Williams, it was legal under Virginia law to do so. The legislature has since rewritten the law, and violators can now be prosecuted under more clear state legal standards.

Nonetheless, this case demonstrates again the dangerous intersection between money and power, a long-standing problem that mostly defies solution. But at least in this case, Menendez's constituents can register their own opinion about the propriety of his conduct.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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GeneralLeePeeved wrote on February 02, 2018 at 9:02 am

I guess this Editorial Board just can't help but show their bias......every single chance they get.  They make it a point to insert the fact that Menendez is a Democrat......but, lo and behold, the article is silent about the fact that the former Gov. of Virginia is a Republican.