SEPTEMBER 14, 2017
The federal corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez and his very good amigo, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, is underway in New Jersey. It doesn’t appear to be going well for the prosecution.
On Tuesday, the government put Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends on the stand, and they weren’t happy about it. Senator Menendez is accused, inter alia, of exerting improper influence to obtain visas for the foreign-born women in exchange for gifts—bribes, prosecutors say—from Dr. Melgen. Svitlana Buchyk, a “model and actress,” had the courtroom “laughing at some of her answers,” Politico reported. When asked by a defense attorney how long she had spent with prosecutors preparing her testimony, she said she didn’t know, “it just seems very long when I’m around them.”
Asked if she understood why she was in court, Ms. Buchyk “let out a long, exasperated ‘no,’” Politico reported. “No, I don’t know why I’m here,” she said, indicating lead prosecutor Peter Koski. “He’s just forcing me to be here.”
In the courtroom, Judge William Walls did not allow Dr. Melgen’s girlfriends to be referred to as “girlfriends,” only “friendship” was acknowledged, fooling no one. In a bizarre filing before the trial opened, the government worked hard to portray the senator and the wealthy doctor as two dirty old men living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Dr. Melgen wanted to bring his young “foreign girlfriends to the United States to visit him,” the document notes. The women were “from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Ukraine.” Senator Menendez helped with the visas. Dr. Melgen arranged for Mr. Menendez and his girlfriend (oh by the way both men are married) “to stay in Punta Cana, an exclusive oceanside resort town” in the Dominican Republic.
On other occasions, the two men and their, er, friends, enjoyed vacations “at Melgen’s villa at Casa de Campo, a cloistered resort on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic with renowned golf courses, a spa, polo fields, a marina, restaurants and other amenities.” The trial brief describes an “enclave, venerated for its seclusion” and “frequently visited by luminaries in sports, entertainment and business, including Beyonce, Jay-Z, Jennifer Lopez, Richard Branson and Bill Gates.” Elsewhere in the brief, the government notes that with assistance for Dr. Melgen, Mr. Menendez stayed at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Paris, “one of Europe’s most elite, routinely hosting celebrities from the world over, including the likes of George Clooney and Maria Sharapova.”
It’s unclear what relation Beyonce and George Clooney have to the case, but eventually the trial will get down to narrow matters of law. As I noted last month, this is where it’s likely to run into trouble with the Supreme Court’s recent McDonnell decision, which narrowed the definition of corrupt practices by public servants. But meanwhile, getting pushed around by your own witness and filing specious briefs are signs your case is in trouble.
Lavish lifestyles and big money also form the background to the travails of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. I surveyed the complicated corruption allegations against him here. Four cases are pending, including one for accepting expensive gifts. Another case, the so-called “Submarine Affair,” took a turn for the worse earlier this month with the arrest of David Sharan, the prime minister’s former chief of staff. The case involves bribery of government officials to grease the skids for a billion-dollar submarine deal. Mr. Netanyahu is not a target of the investigation—at least not yet, at least not officially. But the net is tightening around members of his inner circle.
In a separate development, the pressure on the prime minister increased last week when the Israeli attorney general announced that he intended to bring fraud charges against Mr. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara. Mrs. Netanyahu is a lightning rod for public criticism in Israel for her allegedly high-handed ways. She is accused of improperly spending about $100,000 in restaurant and take-out food purchases, a misuse of government funds allocated to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has dismissed the allegations as “absurd” and Mrs. Netanyahu will have an opportunity to defend herself in court before a final decision is made on charging her.
It’s a long way from Casa de Campo to Jerusalem, but the veteran politicians have something in common: a taste for the high life. Of course this is nothing new. “Whoever loves money never has enough, whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income,” notes Ecclesiastes. But is it a crime? In New Jersey, the government’s case is off to a shaky start and McDonnell looms. In Israel, the sheer weight of the multiple cases involving the prime minister seem certain to take a toll and embolden his many parliamentary enemies.
The betting here: Menendez survives, Bibi is gone by April.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
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