September 1, 2017 / 10:09 AM / 4 months ago

New Jersey Senator Menendez fails to win breaks in corruption trial

(Reuters) - A federal judge has rejected Senator Robert Menendez’s request to allow breaks in his corruption trial beginning next Wednesday so the New Jersey Democrat could travel to Washington to cast critical Senate votes.

In a decision made public on Friday, U.S. District Judge William Walls in Newark, New Jersey, rejected Menendez’s claim that he deserved special treatment because he had a “constitutional duty” to be in Washington for his constituents.

Walls said he suspected the request was part of a strategy to “impress the jurors” with Menendez’s importance, but that it was speculative to suggest the senator would miss key votes.

“The court will not serve as concierge to any party or lawyer,” Walls wrote. “The motion - from a practical perspective - is nigh frivolous.”

Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Menendez, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The senator’s press secretary had no immediate comment.

Menendez, 63, is charged with accepting improper campaign donations and gifts, including luxury trips and private jet flights, from co-defendant Salomon Melgen in exchange for lobbying on the wealthy Florida ophthalmologist’s behalf.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to fraud and bribery. Menendez is running for a third Senate term next year.

The senator had sought permission to pause the expected six- to eight-week trial for such votes as raising the federal debt ceiling, rewriting the tax code, and renewing the National Flood Insurance Program, for people like victims of Hurricane Harvey.

But the judge said Menendez deserved “no more and no less deference than any other defendant,” and that college professors, construction workers, and even orthopedic surgeons needed in the operating room would not be excused.

Walls also said requiring him to decide when to stop the trial for key votes would force him to make “explicitly political determinations” and improperly thrust him into the legislative process.

“There is no possibility that the defendant will be subjected to a facially unconstitutional trial,” Walls wrote. “He merely faces the reality, clearly contemplated by the Founders, that criminal prosecution may interrupt congressional duties.”

If Menendez were convicted and forced from the Senate while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was still in office, the Republican could appoint a replacement and add to the GOP’s thin Senate majority. Christie’s term ends on Jan. 16, 2018.

The case is U.S. v. Menendez et al, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey, No. 15-cr-00155.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Dan Grebler

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