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Sen. Menendez's Corruption Trial Hasn't Begun, But Legal Sparring Has

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., (right) speaks alongside his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, after being indicted on corruption charges in April.
Kena Betancur
Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., (right) speaks alongside his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, after being indicted on corruption charges in April.

It's been just two months since the Justice Department indicted Sen. Robert Menendez on bribery and conspiracy charges. But lawyers in the case already seem to be, well, getting under each other's skin.

For now, the fighting centers on where the New Jersey Democrat along with his wealthy friend and donor, Salomon Melgen, should face trial. Federal prosecutors say that should happen in New Jersey, but a high-powered lawyer for the senator is pushing to make his case before a Washington, D.C., jury.

That attorney, Abbe D. Lowell, blasted the government in a court filing this week for "misapplying" and "making up from whole cloth" legal standards on venue change and "oddly disparaging defendants' motives and defense counsel."

Then Lowell proceeded to label his adversaries in the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section with the unfortunate acronym "PIS" throughout his 16-page brief. For the record, the department unit normally goes by "PIN," for public integrity unit.

Lowell also accused the Justice Department of contradicting itself by arguing to try Menendez in his home state — when the department made the opposite claim in its case against late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. It's an example loaded with bad memories. Authorities convicted Stevens in D.C. but ultimately walked away from the case early in the Obama administration after finding evidence-sharing lapses and other prosecutorial misconduct.

A Justice Department spokesman declined comment Wednesday on the war of words. But in a court filing last month, prosecutor Peter Koski asserted that Menendez and his lawyer had engaged in "results oriented analysis" of the venue issue and said a federal grand jury of the senator's own constituents in New Jersey had "properly returned" an indictment against him.

As for a Menendez argument that facing trial in New Jersey could impair his ability to do his job in the Senate, prosecutors wrote, "This is another example of defendant Menendez asking this court for special treatment."

One month ago, DOJ officials promoted veteran prosecutor Raymond Hulser to lead the public integrity unit that's pursuing Menendez. Hulser, 52, told NPR at the time that "this section is not going to be shy about bringing important and tough cases and we're going to try those cases."

Both sides are due in court in New Jersey on June 16 for oral argument before Judge William Walls on the issue of venue change.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.