NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The judge in the bribery trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and his longtime friend chastised prosecutors Thursday for asking a witness “irrelevant” questions, and he cautioned both sides to avoid turning the case into a tabloid trial by focusing on details about swanky hotels, limestone baths and rain showers.
U.S. District Judge William Walls’ admonition came during the questioning of the prosecution’s first witness, an FBI agent summoned to authenticate emails between Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen about a trip to Paris taken by the New Jersey Democrat in 2010.
Melgen paid for Menendez’s $4,900, three-night stay with his American Express points — part of a scheme, prosecutors claim, in which Melgen showered gifts on Menendez to get Menendez to pressure government officials on behalf of Melgen’s business interests.
The questioning sought to show that Menendez initially inquired about cheaper rooms, then asked Melgen to get him the more expensive room with the luxury features.
Walls interrupted the questioning and sent the jury out of the room before addressing the attorneys.
“I said before I’m not going to let this be a tabloid trial,” he said, adding, “Who cares whether the senator opted for a more expensive room? What is the point to be made? I don’t think it’s a sin for him to want a limestone bath per se, and if anyone’s ever been in a rain shower, he or she would appreciate one.”
While Walls warned both sides, it was a break from a pattern in which he has clashed on several occasions with defense attorneys.
Earlier Thursday, Melgen attorney Kirk Ogrosky told jurors in his opening statement that the government’s case was built on “corrupt assumptions” rather than hard evidence of any bribery arrangement.
Melgen and Menendez spent time frequently at Melgen’s homes in Florida and the Dominican Republic, Ogrosky said, and Menendez often paid for his own flights to visit Melgen with family members.
“That’s a heck of a bribe,” Ogrosky told jurors. “‘I’ll bribe you, pay your own way.’ That’s baloney.”
Ogrosky also said Melgen didn’t get any benefit from Menendez’s alleged attempts to pressure government officials on his behalf.
The government painted a different picture in its opening statement Wednesday. Justice Department attorney Peter Koski described Menendez pressuring government officials to help Melgen with securing visas for his foreign girlfriends and intervening in a lucrative port security contract in the Dominican Republic and a multimillion-dollar Medicare dispute.
Among the gifts prosecutors say Melgen gave Menendez were flights on Melgen’s private jet, vacations at Melgen’s private villa in the Dominican Republic frequented by celebrities like Beyonce and Jay Z, and the three-night stay at the Paris hotel. Melgen also contributed more than $700,000 to Menendez’s legal defense fund and to entities that supported Menendez’s campaigns.
“He went to bat when Dr. Melgen asked, and Dr. Melgen asked frequently,” Koski said. “There’s no friendship exception to bribery. There’s no friendship exception to breaking the law.”
Menendez and Melgen were indicted in 2015 and face multiple fraud and bribery charges in a case that could threaten Menendez’s political career and potentially alter the makeup of a deeply divided U.S. Senate if he’s convicted.
If he is expelled or steps down before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican would pick Menendez’s successor. A Democrat has a large polling and financial advantage in November’s election to replace Christie.
Menendez and Melgen each face three counts of honest services fraud, the most serious charge that carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
Menendez has denied the allegations. Before entering the courthouse Wednesday, Menendez made what his aid said would be his last public statement until the trial is over.
“I have committed my entire adult life, since I was 19, to fighting for the people of New Jersey. Never, not once, have I dishonored my public office,” Menendez said with his daughter and son behind him. “I started my public career fighting corruption and I have always acted in accordance with the law. I believe when all of the facts are known, I will be vindicated.”
The 63-year-old getting choked up as he thanked those who have stood by him.
“I appreciate my family, my son and daughter who are here today,” he said. “I appreciate all of my supporters who have stood by me as I try to clear my name. I am thankful for the countless New Jerseyeans who either called me or called my office to say they’ve had my back, as I’ve had theirs.”
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)