Sen. Bob Menendez's federal corruption trial could have outsized Washington impact

NEW YORK, Sept 6 (Reuters) - For the first time since the "Abscam" scandal 36 years ago, a sitting U.S. senator will go on trial for bribery on Wednesday in a federal courthouse.

Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, is accused of intervening with federal officials on behalf of a wealthy benefactor in exchange for lavish gifts, including luxury vacations and major political contributions.

The trial could have an outsized impact in Washington, D.C., where Republicans maintain a razor-thin edge in the Senate. If Menendez is convicted and either resigns or is expelled by his colleagues before January, his replacement would be named by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and staunch supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump.

RELATED: A look at Sen. Bob Menendez

19 PHOTOS
Sen. Menendez DOJ
See Gallery
Sen. Menendez DOJ
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) departs after speaking at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 06: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on March 26, 2015 in Newark New Jersey. Menendez is expected to face Federal corruption charges for allegedly using his office for the benefit of donors. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 03: Committee Ranking Member Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) listens to witnesses during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on U.S. and Cuban relations in Washington, D.C. on February 3, 2015. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, NEW JERSEY - DECEMBER 15: U.S. Sen. Senator Robert Menendez addresses the media in advance of an event with U.S. President Barack Obama December 15, 2014 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. Obama will address the troops to thank them for their service and mark the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan. ahead of the upcoming holidays. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
US Senator Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee makes opening remarks June 5, 2014 at the start of hearings Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on 'Development in Ukraine.' AFP PHOTO / Karen BEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
US Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ, speaks as he introduces Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for Johnson's nomination to be Homeland Security secretary in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on November 13, 2013 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 3: From left, ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J. conduct the Senate Foreign Relations mark up hearing to authorize for use of military force in Syria on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference on an agreement for principles on comprehensive immigration reform framework at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ (2L) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with his son Robert Menendez and daughter Alicia Jacobsen Menendez and US Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. The 113th US Congress, featuring dozens of new faces in the House and Senate, convened Thursday fresh from the year-end 'fiscal cliff' fiasco, as lawmakers cast a wary eye towards the tough budget battles ahead. AFP PHOTO / Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 01: Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks at a press conference on April 1, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. According to reports, Menendez has been indicted on federal corruption charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The case is also a high-profile test of the ability of federal prosecutors to go after elected officials for bribery, after the U.S. Supreme Court last year narrowed the grounds for such charges.

Opening statements are scheduled for Wednesday in Newark, New Jersey, and the trial is expected to last up to two months.

Menendez, 63, who has served in the Senate since 2006, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. He is running for reelection in 2018 despite the 12-count corruption indictment.

The case centers on the relationship between Menendez and his co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist who gave him private flights, expensive vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to his campaigns.

SEE ALSO: Hurricane Irma churns through Caribbean islands, possibly en route to Florida

Prosecutors say those gifts were actually bribes to persuade Menendez to press Melgen's interests in Washington.

The senator met with Medicare's top administrator, as well as a member of the cabinet, in an effort to get Medicare's reimbursement policy changed so Melgen could avoid paying millions of dollars the agency said he owed, according to the charges.

Menendez also enlisted the State Department to try to resolve a dispute between one of Melgen's companies and the Dominican Republic.

Menendez's lawyers plan to argue that Melgen's gifts were just a result of the pair's close friendship, and that any actions the senator took were based on legitimate policy concerns.

Melgen, 63, was convicted earlier this year of perpetrating a massive Medicare fraud. His sentencing has been postponed until after the New Jersey trial.

The last senator to go on trial for corruption while still in office was another New Jersey senator, Harrison Williams, who was convicted in 1981 as part of the public corruption "sting" operation popularly known as "Abscam." (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Daniel Wallis and David Gregorio)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.