(Reuters) - Federal prosecutors on Friday opposed a last-ditch effort by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez to allow periodic delays in his federal corruption trial in Newark, New Jersey, next month so that he can travel to Washington to cast critical Senate votes.
U.S. District Judge William Walls on Tuesday had rejected Menendez’s request, saying the Democrat was free to “absent himself” from testimony but did not deserve special treatment, being “no worse and no better than any other defendant.”
In a filing on Thursday, Menendez said his “constitutional obligations” to his constituents justified altering the trial schedule so he could vote on raising the debt ceiling to avoid a government shutdown, rewriting the tax code and renewing the soon-to-expire National Flood Insurance Program.
Republicans have a narrow Senate majority, and Menendez said July’s failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act showed his absence from any vote could be “potentially determinative.”
The trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 6.
Prosecutors on Friday said the scheduling conflicts resulted from Menendez’s lengthy, failed pursuit of a meritless argument that the Constitution immunized him from prosecution.
“No defendant should receive special treatment based on power or privilege,” prosecutors said. “This court should reject defendant Menendez’s effort to let politics in Washington dictate the trial schedule in Newark.”
Menendez later countered that U.S. Supreme Court precedents and “common sense” justified an accommodation.
It is unclear when the judge will rule on Menendez’s request.
The senator was charged with accepting campaign donations and gifts, including a stay at a Caribbean villa and private jet flights, from co-defendant Salomon Melgen in exchange for lobbying on the Florida eye doctor’s behalf.
Both men have pleaded not guilty to fraud and bribery. Jury selection was completed on Wednesday.
If Menendez were found guilty and removed from the Senate before New Jersey Governor Chris Christie completes his term on Jan. 16, 2018, then Christie, a Republican, could name a replacement. Christie’s successor could fill any subsequent vacancy.
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; Editing by Dan Grebler