As the trial of a sitting U.S. senator continues, new light has been shed on the allegations against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). According to reports, an ex-aide to Sen. Menendez testified about helping secure a tourist visa for a 22-year old who wanted to visit the senator’s wealthy Florida eye doctor and friend.
“Call Ambassador asap,” Menendez reportedly told Mark Lopes, his former senior policy adviser. The request was made via a November 2008 email and shown to Newark federal jurors on Monday.
Lopes was being asked to contact a US ambassador “asap” on behalf of Rosiell Polanco, a 22-year-old woman who wished to visit Dr. Salomon Melgen, 63, Menendez’s friend.
The two men are on trial, with Menendez accused of doing official favors for the ophthalmologist, and Dr. Melgen accused of paying for those favors with lavish gifts, including vacations and campaign contributions. This is the first time in 36 years that a sitting United States senator has faced federal bribery charges.
Senator Menendez and Dr. Melgen are close friends. The doctor has gifted the senator with more than $700,000 in campaign-related cash, and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and lavish trips, in exchange for his help.
Menendez’s lawyers admit that the senator intervened on his friend’s behalf in certain instances, but they maintain that those activities were due to their decades-long friendship, not in exchange for bribes.
Prosecutors contend that the contributions made by Dr. Melgen were intended to be payments for favors.
An example of the types of favors Sen. Menendez did for his friend came in 2011. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) played a part in helping Menendez to “amplify the pressure” on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, asking them to reverse a ruling that Melgen owed $8.9 million for overbilling Medicare.
In another example, presented Monday to the jury, Menendez advocated for the married doctor’s professional and personal affairs, including to help secure visas for three of his foreign flings, prosecutors said.
In a series of emails presented by prosecutes, Sen. Menendez discussed with Lopes and other staffers how best to tackle the Polanco visa issue. One of the subject lines read: “Dr. Melgen’s request.” Reportedly, Dr. Melgen was copied in on the emails.
Prosecutors also introduced a weekly staff report, showing that the “Melgen visa inquiry” was given enough importance for Lopes to include it in a status report to the senator, along with global affairs like “Cuba Policy” and a “Pakistan/Afghanistan meeting.”
Menendez also wrote a letter of support for Polanco and her sister, ahead of their visa interview. When that letter was dismissed by a consular official, Menendez allegedly asked to speak to the ambassador directly, Lopes testified.
“Do US ambassadors usually get involved in visa applications?” prosecutor Joseph Patrick Cooney asked Lopes.
“Only if US senators advocate on their behalf,” Lopes reportedly replied. “He wanted to be proactive about advocating for the outcome that he sought and didn’t want to wait for a response.”
The visa request for Polanco was rejected, but a month later, she and her sister were re-interviewed by an official who ultimately approved the visas.
“In my view, this is ONLY DUE to the fact that RM intervened,” Lopes wrote in an email at the time, in support of his then-boss’ abilities.
Menendez allegedly also pressed for visas for Juliana Lopes Leite, a Brazilian beauty-turned-lawyer, according to the New York Post, as well as for a Ukrainian model named Svitlana Buchyk.
On Monday, the feds introduced documents showing that Menendez used Lopes to intercede on behalf of Leite with a similar letter of support. Leite’s application was immediately approved, according to documents which indicate the Brazilian embassy felt she was the “perfect student visa case.”
Melgen’s lawyers have asked the jury to ignore the doctor’s affairs, saying they have nothing to do with the case.
“You are not here to judge his personal life,” lawyer Kirk Ogrosky told the jury in opening remarks last week.
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