Senator Bob Menendez won a major victory in November, when a judge declared a mistrial in the corruption case against him, and on Wednesday, the New Jersey Democrat won another: The Justice Department filed to dismiss the corruption charges against him, effectively closing his case—and highlighting the growing difficulty of successfully convicting public officials of corruption.
Menendez’s weeks-long trial, which culminated in November with a hung jury, took up the issue of whether the senator had accepted expensive gifts and vacations from his frequent donor and friend, Salomon Melgen, a wealthy ophthalmologist, in exchange for political favors. The prosecution argued that the lavish gifts given to the senator amounted to bribery, while Menendez maintained that the two were merely close friends and that the things he agreed to do for Melgen were not “official acts.” In the end, the jurors couldn’t come to a unanimous decision, and it was dismissed as a mistrial.
The Justice Department had originally intended to retry the case, but after a judge acquitted Menendez of seven of the 18 charges facing him on January 24, they decided against it. “I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to reevaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion,” said Menendez in a statement.
In November, the George Washington law professor and former federal prosecutor Randall Eliason told The Atlantic that he would be “surprised” if the Justice Department didn’t retry the case. But now, he says prosecutors no longer have much of one. “They were left with a much less substantial case than they had initially,” Eliason told me. “It just highlights the difficulty of proving these cases on corruption, especially in the post-McDonnell world.”
McDonnell refers to the Supreme Court ruling in McDonnell v. United States, another public-corruption trial. In that case, the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was vacated when the high court held that in a federal bribery case, the prosecution must prove that the public official’s actions qualified as an “official act” as defined in federal bribery law.
The McDonnell ruling made it more difficult for federal prosecutors to make corruption cases against public officials—and not just Menendez. In the wake of the ruling, federal judges tossed the corruption convictions of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on similar grounds. Both cases are expected to be retried this spring.
While Menendez’s case is substantially different from those cases, Eliason is worried that the bar for political corruption has been set too high. “I think people should be concerned that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to root out the influence of money in politics,” he said. “Through a series of decisions over the last couple of decades, it’s been more and more difficult to establish actual corruption.”
Sixty-four-year-old Menendez, for his part, is expected to finish out his term in the Senate, and if all goes well, run for reelection in November.