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Politics & Government

Ahead Of Pretrial Hearing, Menendez Defense Points Fingers At Prosecutors

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn to a Democratic senator famous for his willingness to take on a fight. When the Justice Department slapped New Jersey's Robert Menendez with bribery and fraud charges, the Democrat shoved back. Both sides are scheduled to appear in a New Jersey courtroom today for a pretrial hearing. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Prosecutors have accused Sen. Menendez of accepting political donations and lavish trips to advance the interest of his longtime friend. But Menendez, talking here after the indictment, is not backing down.

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ROBERT MENENDEZ: I'm angry because prosecutors at the Justice Department don't know the difference between friendship and corruption and have chosen to twist my duties as a senator and my friendship into something that is improper. They are dead wrong.

JOHNSON: Now his defense team is turning the tables, pointing fingers at prosecutors. They say the government has larded the case with salacious details, parading ex-girlfriends before the grand jury to testify about the senator and his political patron, an eye doctor named Salomon Melgen, and bullying witnesses including an early morning visit to the lawmaker's ex-wife.

RANDALL ELIASON: This is a very, very aggressive defense. And it's sort of been a legal knife fight so far.

JOHNSON: Former prosecutor Randall Eliason says the arguments are part of a story the senator is trying to tell the public.

ELIASON: They're trying to paint a narrative that Sen. Menendez is really the victim here and that the government prosecutors have been out of control and engaged in misconduct and sort of unjustly persecuted him.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says it will do it's speaking in the courtroom. But in legal briefs prosecutors argue Menendez is far from a victim. The government says it didn't focus on all the men's girlfriends - only the half-dozen who accompanied them on private planes and luxury trips. Prosecutors call those women direct witnesses to corruption. As for bullying, the government says investigators arrived on the doorstep of the senator's ex-wife at 9 in the morning, and it's not the FBI's fault she was still wearing her pajamas.

U.S. District Judge William Walls will have a lot of other issues to consider. One critical question - whether any of Menendez's actions on behalf of his friend Melgen are protected under the speech or debate clause of the Constitution. That's supposed to give lawmakers cover for their official acts in Congress. The senator's lawyers say that protection should extend to a meeting he had with executive branch officials on a health care policy change, one that would have benefited Melgen. If either side doesn't like the judge's ruling on that issue, it can appeal, delaying the trial deep into 2016, an election year. Eliason, the former prosecutor, says that could give Melgen, who's also been charged, more time to entertain the idea of a plea deal.

ELIASON: The strength of this friendship will really be tested - whether Dr. Melgen resists that pressure, whether he ultimately rolls over and ends up testifying against Sen. Menendez.

JOHNSON: So far there's no sign that friendly alliance has begun to crack. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.