NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Attorneys in the corruption case against U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sparred Friday over a questionnaire for potential jurors.
Prosecutors urged the judge not to include questions probing whom jurors voted for or how they felt about Menendez’s stand on issues like the Iran nuclear deal.
The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 6. Menendez faces bribery, fraud and conspiracy counts for allegedly using his official position to lobby government officials on behalf of a longtime friend who had donated to his campaign and lavished him with gifts, including flights on a private jet and a Paris vacation.
Menendez, who did not attend Friday’s hearing, has pleaded not guilty and contends his actions were protected under a constitutional clause shielding lawmakers when they conduct normal legislative duties.
U.S. District Judge William Walls, who made no immediate ruling, said letters will be sent to 500 to 600 jurors, with the aim of getting about 200 who would be available. He said they will be given the questionnaire to fill out by the end of June, to give attorneys time to review the responses.
The jurors would then report to court Aug. 23 to begin the selection process.
Prosecutor Peter Koski said Friday that asking jurors whom they voted for or what they felt about Menendez’s stance on major political issues “risks politicizing the case, and that would be improper.”
Walls responded that the case is already politicized by virtue of Menendez’s status as a senator, and that asking potential jurors about political issues could detect bias.
“I know that people carry grudges, and politicians are often the source of people carrying grudges,” he said.
Menendez diverged from President Barack Obama in opposing the Iran deal and the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Menendez was indicted by a grand jury in 2015. Prosecutors say he took official action on behalf of wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, whom he has known for more than 20 years, in a Medicare dispute and in a business transaction involving Melgen’s interest in a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
To Menendez and his legal team, the indictment was an egregious example of the Justice Department’s over-reaching into the legitimate affairs of a sitting lawmaker.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, have characterized Menendez as hiding behind the speech or debate clause to obscure the fact he was lobbying on behalf of his wealthy benefactor.
Melgen currently is on trial in Florida for Medicare fraud in a separate case. Closing arguments are expected next week. He and Menendez will be tried together in New Jersey.
The case has been delayed by Menendez’s appeal to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case, called a petition for certification. The high court declined last month, letting stand a federal appeals court ruling denying Menendez’s motion to have the charges thrown out.
Walls left no doubt he would do everything he could to avoid any more delays. The trial is expected to last about six to eight weeks.
“Now that cert has been denied, it’s time to try this case,” the judge said, adding that he didn’t want the trial to still be going on “when everybody is running around with Christmas presents.”
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)