Senator Bob Menendez’s political corruption case will go forward under a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In a 22-count indictment, the government alleges that, from 2006 to 2013, Menendez solicited and accepted gifts from a Florida opthalmologist in exchange for, among other favors, (1) influencing an $8.9 million enforcement action against the doctor by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”), and (2) encouraging the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to intervene on the doctor’s behalf in a contract dispute with the Dominican Republic. Menendez allegedly wielded that influence by meeting with and speaking to – either personally or through staff – high-ranking Executive Branch officials, including then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, and Assistant Secretary of State, William Brownfield, on the doctor’s behalf.
Menendez moved the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey to dismiss the indictment. He argued, in part, that his interventions were legislative acts protected from prosecution by the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The district court denied the motion, and the Third Circuit affirmed.
Before the Third Circuit, Menendez contended that the Speech and Debate Clause protects any effort by a legislator “to oversee the Executive Branch.” Conversely, the government argued that legislative attempts to impact executive action are never protected by the Speech and Debate Clause. The Court spurned both “all-encompassing” positions, holding that informal efforts to influence executive action are “ambiguously legislative in nature and therefore may (or may not) be protected legislative acts depending on their content, purpose, and motive.”
Applying “clear error” review to the district court’s factual findings, the Court rejected Menendez’s characterization of his conduct as legislative fact-finding and efforts to change executive policy. The district court found that Menendez’s actions were tied to a specific individual, and the Third Circuit panel determined that ample record evidence supports that conclusion. Thus, under the deferential standard of review given to findings of fact, the conduct alleged in the indictment amounts to lobbying on the behalf of an individual, activity that the Speech and Debate Clause does not protect.
According to a statement on his defense counsel’s website, Menendez plans to petition the Third Circuit for a rehearing en banc. Such petitions are rarely granted and even more rarely result in a different outcome. Thus, Menendez likely will have to pursue an acquittal before a jury.