Corruption trial of Dem Senator Menendez ends in mistrial

Nov 16 (Reuters) - The corruption trial of Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez ended in a mistrial on Thursday, after the jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked on bribery, fraud and other charges.

Menendez, 63, a longtime fixture in New Jersey political circles who first joined the Senate in 2006, was accused of accepting private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, in exchange for official favors.

The hung jury is a major setback for federal prosecutors in what was their first high-profile corruption trial since a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year limited their ability to bring such cases.

RELATED: A look at Sen. Bob Menendez

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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)
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The jury deliberated for most of last week before restarting their discussions on Monday after one juror had to be replaced due to a scheduling conflict. Jurors first indicated they were having trouble reaching a verdict on Monday.

It was not immediately clear whether the Justice Department would seek to retry Menendez, who is running for re-election next year.

Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors had cherry-picked gifts exchanged between close friends in an effort to suggest impropriety when none existed.

The mistrial provides at least temporary relief for Menendez's Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Had Menendez been convicted, Republicans would likely have pushed for either resignation or expulsion, giving Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a chance to replace him and extend the Republicans' current 52-48 edge.

The case was seen as a test for prosecutors in the wake of last year's Supreme Court ruling vacating the bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. In doing so, the high court narrowed the grounds on which the government can prosecute officials for corruption.

The trial judge, Williams Walls, had strongly considered a defense motion to throw out the case mid-trial in light of the McDonnell decision before deciding against it.

U.S. prosecutors accused Menendez of pressuring Medicare officials to change the agency's billing practices after it concluded that Melgen overbilled it by millions of dollars.

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Melgen was separately convicted in Florida earlier this year of a massive Medicare fraud, though his sentencing was delayed pending the outcome of the New Jersey trial.

According to the government, Menendez also helped secure visas for the married Melgen's foreign girlfriends and asked U.S. officials to resolve a port dispute in the Dominican Republic involving one of Melgen's businesses.

In exchange, Melgen showered the senator with gifts such as luxury vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign support, prosecutors said. (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)

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