Jury selection kicked off on Tuesday for the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat facing charges that he accepted bribes from his top donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, in exchange for favors.
During the first day of the proceedings in U.S. District Court in Newark, 10 jurors were selected out of 12 and four alternates. The jury selection process is scheduled to continue on Wednesday, and the trial itself is set to start Sept. 6.
At stake is not just Menendez’s career but a coveted Senate seat that Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, could fill if Menendez is convicted before January. According to reporting from the Associated Press, the trial is expected to last two months.
Menendez and Melgen, a co-defendant in the case, were both in the courthouse and pleaded not guilty to an updated indictment before U.S. District Judge William H. Walls on Tuesday. Menendez allegedly took lavish trips paid for by Melgen and received other perks in exchange for arranging meetings with federal officials on a Medicare billing issue affecting Melgen’s eye practice, and for arranging visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends. Melgen has been convicted in a separate case of defrauding Medicare.
Menendez has maintained his innocence for years, arguing that there was no corrupt quid pro quo with Melgen, as the government claims, only a close friendship. The senator’s high-powered legal team, led by attorney Abbe Lowell, also argues that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the definition of bribery when it threw out a corruption conviction last year for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, and that, as a result, the indictment against Menendez does not hold water.
In a rare development, members of the media were not allowed to enter the courtroom for key parts of the proceedings on Tuesday, according to multiple media outlets.
Walls, a judge on senior status appointed by President Bill Clinton, did not say why proceedings were temporarily closed, the AP reported. “Trial courts are obligated to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trials,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in a case about public attendance during jury selection.