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Menendez faces Senate ethics probe after mistrial

The Senate Ethics Committee will resume its investigation into Sen. Bob Menendez, a move that came just hours after a mistrial was announced in the New Jersey Democrat’s bribery and corruption case.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had called for an ethics probe of Menendez as soon as a mistrial was declared by U.S. District Judge William Walls. The deadlock in the criminal proceedings was a huge legal victory for Menendez, who grew emotional as he spoke about the case with reporters.

With incoming New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and other top state officials pledging their loyalty to him — and Menendez suddenly looking like an incumbent ready to announce his reelection rather than a criminal defendant trying to avoid prison — the ethics probe means Menendez will still have this case hanging over him well into 2018.

Still, Menendez’s office expressed confidence he will overcome further investigations.

“The Ethics Committee will come to no different conclusion than this jury did,” said Fred Turner, Menendez’s chief of staff. “There is no merit to further pursuing this matter.”

The Justice Department could also seek a retrial for Menendez, although the chances of that happening are unclear and the Ethics Committee is now moving forward.

“In 2012, the Committee initiated a preliminary inquiry into alleged misconduct by Senator Robert Menendez,” the Ethics Committee said in a bipartisan statement from all six members, including Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Vice Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.). “In early 2013, consistent with its precedent and in consideration of the Department of Justice’s criminal investigation, the Committee deferred its inquiry. At this time, the Committee intends to resume its process.”

Any evidence presented by prosecutors or the defense team at the trial can be used by the Ethics Committee.

The news came as senators were still wrestling with the stunning news of the jury’s stalemate, which ended — for now — a five year ordeal for Menendez.

McConnell, however, moved quickly Thursday.

Menendez “is one of only twelve U.S. senators to have been indicted in our history. His trial shed light on serious accusations of violating the public’s trust as an elected official, as well as potential violations of the Senate’s Code of Conduct,” McConnell said in a statement. “Because of the seriousness of these charges, I am calling on the Senate Ethics committee to immediately investigate Senator Menendez’s actions which led to his indictment.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to comment on the mistrial in the Menendez case or McConnell’s calls for an ethics probe. The Ethics Committee is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, so no probe can go forward without bipartisan support.

Meanwhile, Menendez’s colleagues were cautiously optimistic that the Justice Department would forgo another trial.

“I think he went through hell with this,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “That’s enough.”

Feinstein added: “The charges were not proven. Therefore, he should be able to come back and carry on.”

“I prosecuted an awful lot of cases, and from what I’ve seen, it did not look like they had a strong case, especially in light of the [Bob McDonnell] precedent,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who was a state prosecutor before he was elected to the Senate. “In my experience, prosecutors don’t retry it. But that I’m not going to try to suggest to the prosecutors what they should do.”

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared as character witnesses for Menendez during the trial.

“The Bob Menendez that I know is an honest, forthright person. That’s what I said in my testimony,” Graham said. “I’m happy for Bob. We’ll see what the government does. They have a right to bring back the charges. It’s up to them.”

Menendez and Dr. Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend and donor, were indicted in April 2015. The Justice Department charged Menendez with taking official acts on Melgen’s behalf in exchange for private jet flights, hotel rooms and nearly $750,000 in campaign contributions directly to the New Jersey Democrat or political organizations that supported him.

In turn, Menendez intervened in a multimillion-dollar Medicare billing dispute on Melgen’s behalf, helped obtained visas for several Melgen girlfriends, and lobbied State Department officials regarding a $500 million port security contract that a Melgen company had with the Dominican Republic.

Melgen, 63, has been convicted in the Medicare billing dispute and is awaiting sentencing.

After a nine-week trial, and nearly two weeks of jury deliberations, U.S. District Judge William Walls declared a mistrial, a huge legal victory for Menendez.

One juror told reporters afterward that there was a 10-2 split in favor of acquittal, saying prosecutors had “no smoking gun” for proving bribery between Menendez and Melgen.

Menendez, though, admitted in 2013 that he had taken flights on Melgen’s jet and failed to declare them, a potential violation of Senate ethics rules. Menendez later repaid Melgen $58,000 once the flights were reported by the media.

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