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Mistrial declared in Menendez corruption case

NEWARK — A mistrial was declared in the corruption case of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) Thursday, dealing a blow to the Justice Department and leaving the Democrat defiant — but still politically bloodied — heading into 2018.

The mistrial came after jurors remained deadlocked following four days of deliberations. And it means that nearly three years after he was charged with corruption, Menendez walked out of the federal courthouse in Newark a free man — but with a cloud still hanging over him. The Justice Department said only that it would “carefully consider next steps.”

A tearful Menendez thanked his supporters and took aim at his critics outside the Newark courthouse.

“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” he said.

After they spent more than two months listening to dozens of witnesses and hours of arguments and instructions, the jury in the trial of Menendez and co-defendant Salomon Melgen could not come to a verdict on the charges against both men.

The jury sent a note to the court around 11:35 this morning. Jurors said they “slowly and thoroughly” reviewed the evidence in the case “in great detail” but are not “willing to move away from our strong positions.”

Defense attorneys immediately pushed for a mistrial.

“I think at this point we have to accept what they said and declare this a mistrial,” Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell said.

Lead prosecutor Peter Koski wanted Judge William Walls to see if the jury has reached a verdict on any of the 18 counts against Menendez and Melgen.

Walls did not agree.

“Based upon what has been so clearly and definitively written, that would be a futile exercise,” Walls said, adding that such a move would risk “sliding down a slope of coercion and I’m not going to do that.”

Walls, the prosecution and the defense then left the courtroom to interview the jurors, one by one.

After about an hour, attorneys and the defendants filed back into the courtroom. Menendez hugged and kissed his two adult children, and his allies and family members exchanged hugs.

Ed Norris, one of the jurors, told reporters outside the courthouse that 10 jurors thought Menendez was not guilty, and two thought he was guilty, on most of the counts.

“There was no smoking gun in this case. We didn’t see. That’s all. We went by that. We all pretty much went by our hearts. There was nothing going on in the case to convict him,” Norris, a 49-year-old equipment operator from Morris County, said.

The hung jury forced Walls to declare a mistrial, leaving it up to the Justice Department decide whether to try the powerful Democratic senator and his friend again in a case that has revolved not around proving what the senator did for his friend, but on questions of intent and arcane legal arguments.

“The Department of Justice appreciates the jury’s service in this lengthy trial. The Department will carefully consider next steps in this important matter and report to the Court at the appropriate time,” said Justice spokesperson Nicole Navas Oxman.

Menendez cried as he thanked his family, friends and political allies for sticking by him. He especially singled out Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who testified for him as a character witness along with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Menendez even gave Booker’s potential presidential candidacy an endorsement of sorts.

”I know that many who were close to him urged him not to testify,” Menendez said of Booker. “But it’s the measure of an incredible man who’s willing to use not only his personal reputation but to take a risk in order to see justice done. He’s a public servant with an unlimited potential who can easily serve our country in the highest office in the land.”

Menendez slammed “elements” of the FBI who he said could not accept “that a Latino kid from Union City could grow up to be a United State senator and be honest.”

“They were not supposed to be leaking to the press during the early stages of the investigation, violating my rights to a fair process. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but my mistakes were never a crime,” Menendez said, adding that had it not been for his supporters around the country who contributed to his legal fund, “I could never have afforded the millions of dollars this case has cost.

Menendez had kind words for his co-defendant, who could face the rest of his life behind bars for a Medicare fraud conviction.

“And I wish my dear friend Sal success in his continuing search for justice,” he said.

Menendez said that he chose not to take the stand because it would have added “days” to the trial, giving prosecutors an opportunity to have him re-read emails from staff members they already presented to the jury, having him “redo their entire, meritless case in chief all over again.”

Menedez also said that his legal team calculated that any more time would increase the chances of losing a juror who was going to be excused for vacation. Menendez said the defense thought “that she believed in our innocence” based on her reactions to both sides’ presentations.

Prosecutors alleged that Melgen, a Florida opthamologist, plied Menendez with gifts, including private jet flights, luxury hotel stays and around $750,000 in campaign contributions. In exchange, Menendez allegedly went to bat for Melgen’s business interests at the highest levels of the federal government, seeking officials’ help in his $8.9 million Medicare dispute, attempting to get American officials to pressure the Dominican Republic to honor a lucrative port security contract Melgen owned, and securing visas for three of Melgen’s former girlfriends.

The defense did not dispute that Menendez attempted to help Melgen. But his actions on Melgen’s behalf, they said, were borne out of a two-decade friendship, and that Menendez saw Melgen’s disputes with federal agencies as broader policy issues.

A major weakness in the prosecution’s case was the lack of a single piece of evidence — an email, a note or even a witness — that directly tied Menendez’s actions with an alleged bribe. Instead, prosecutors were forced to make their case entirely circumstantially, relying mainly on the timing between Melgen’s gifts and Menendez’s actions.

In making their case that Menendez traded his power for a life of luxury he couldn’t afford, prosecutors also spent substantial time describing the amenities at Casa de Campo, the Dominican resort where Melgen owned a villa he would often put Menendez up in. They also went to great lengths to showcase the luxury of the two Melgen-owned private jets Menendez flew in. But Menendez’s team countered that the senator went to Casa de Campo to spend time with Melgen, not to enjoy the amenities, which he barely used.

The mistrial means that if the Justice Department decides to re-try Menendez, it will almost certainly take place during his reelection campaign. Menendez has indicated that he plans to seek reelection, and his uncertain legal status could jeopardize what should be one of Democrats’ safest Senate seats in 2018. During the trial, several polls showed Menendez’s approval and favorability rating collapse.

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Thursday they would support Menendez for re-election if he chooses to run.

Menendez adviser Michael Soliman said in an email to expect an announcement from the senator on whether he’ll seek reelection “in the coming weeks” and that “all things indicate to him running for re-election.”

Soliman said that despite the uncertainty, he’s confident that if the senator seeks reelection, he’ll win.

“Sure it’ll make it more difficult, but when has Bob Menendez ever had an easy race in terms of having to fight night and day to secure his seat on behalf of New Jerseyans? Bottom line is that if he decides to run again, we are ready get over the finish line next November,” Soliman said, adding that Democrats in New Jersey “are standing with Bob Menendez.”

The lack of a verdict is blow to the Justice Department, which spent years putting together its case against the senator. It’s only the second time in two years the department has gone after a sitting U.S. Senator, and the last case did not turn out well either.

In 2008, the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was indicted shortly before his reelection for lying about more than $250,000 in gifts to remodel his from Anchorage home from an Alaska oil executive. Stevens was convicted in the case, but the decision was vacated after an FBI whistleblower told the judge that federal prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense team. Stevens, who lost his reelection, died in a plane crash in 2010.

Linh Tat contributed to this report.

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