NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Attorneys began questioning potential jurors Tuesday for next month’s federal corruption trial of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
A stoic Menendez walked calmly into court Tuesday morning. New Jersey’s senior senator said little to reporters as he was escorted into the building by his spokesperson, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
“Looking forward to picking a jury,” he said.
Inside, a panel of about 100 New Jersey residents will eventually be whittled down to 12 jurors and four alternates – a group of men and women who are all among Menendez’s constituents – who could determine his fate.
The panel could be seated by the end of the week.
Menendez is facing 14 counts of bribery and conspiracy. He was charged in 2015 with allegedly accepting nearly $1 million in campaign donations and also gifts, which included vacation trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic, from Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for using his position in Congress to lobby for the man’s business interests.
In exchange for the contributions and gifts, Menendez allegedly helped Melgen with his multimillion dollar Medicare reimbursement case and other business endeavors. Prosecutors said Menendez also helped secure travel visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends.
The Palm Beach County doctor a co-defendant in the case.
Melgen was convicted in April on multiple counts of Medicare fraud in a separate trial. Menendez wasn’t implicated in that case, but part of the indictment charges him with interceding on behalf of Melgen in a Medicare dispute.
From the start of the case, Menendez has insisted he is innocent and that he and Melgen are simply good friends.
“I’m angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don’t know the difference between friendship and corruption,” he said back in April 2015.
Menendez and Melgen have argued in court papers that the gifts and donations were innocent and that there was no bribery agreement. Menendez also claims his actions were legitimate legislative duties.
The government’s case centers on meetings and interactions Menendez had with, among others, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and acting Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner.
Jurors will have to weigh whether those fall under the category of “official acts” under a law whose definitions have shifted in the wake of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in the case of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.
Mendendez’s lawyers are still pushing to have the charges dismissed, 1010 WINS’ Glenn Schuck reported.
A conviction could mean the end of a long political career and jail time, but it could also have huge implications for the country, WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman reported.
If Menendez is convicted and steps down or is forced out of the Senate — a move that would require a two-thirds majority vote — before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican would pick a successor. The seat is up for election next November.
Because of the complexity of the trial, it’s expected that attorneys on both sides will be even more strategic when choosing jurors, Burrell reported.
The trial is expected to last about two months and is set to begin on Sept. 6.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)