A federal judge on Wednesday acquitted Sen. Bob Menendez and his co-defendant, Salomon Melgen, on seven of the 18 counts they faced in a corruption case that prosecutors plan to retry this year.
U.S. District Judge William Walls struck down the charges and announced he would recuse himself from the case going forward a few days after federal prosecutors announced they intend to retry Menendez and Melgen, a wealthy Florida eye doctor and the New Jersey Democrat’s top donor.
Their corruption trial ended in a mistrial last year after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the counts against them.
Walls dismissed counts that included allegations that Menendez lobbied federal officials to help Melgen in a $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a port security contract dispute in the Dominican Republic in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
In his ruling, Walls wrote that “a rational juror could not find an explicit quid pro quo” based on the evidence presented by prosecutors.
Walls left in place charges that Menendez allegedly accepted private flights on Melgen’s jet and a Paris hotel room as part of an ongoing corrupt agreement and that Menendez intentionally falsified financial disclosure forms that omitted Melgen’s gifts and trips.
“With the court’s decision, this case is now solely about the purest of personal hospitality allegations—stays at his friend, Dr. Melgen’s family home and reimbursed trips on a plane that Dr. Melgen was flying anyway,” said Menendez attorney Abbe D. Lowell. “A jury rejected the government’s facts and theory of bribery, and now the trial judge has rejected a critical legal theory on which the case was brought. The decision of the DOJ to retry the case makes even less sense than it did last week, and we hope it would be reconsidered.”
The Justice Department is reviewing the court’s order and considering next steps, a spokesperson for the department said in an email.
Walls told attorneys involved in the case that he would no longer participate in the case.
“I now recuse myself from any further supervision and participation in this cause,” he wrote in a letter.
The judge declared a mistrial in November after the jury failed to come to a verdict in the corruption case after a two-and-a-half-month trial. A juror said at the time that the jurors leaned 10-2 toward acquittal.
Menendez is up for re-election this year, and all signs indicate he is planning to run for another term. Top New Jersey Democrats are supporting the senator for re-election.
But a recent Morning Consult poll showed that New Jersey voters soured on Menendez during the corruption trial. He has a 29 percent approval rating among registered voters, while 45 percent disapprove—a 20-point drop from the beginning of 2017.
Michael Soliman, Menendez’s top political strategist, said it should surprise no one that the senator’s ratings took a hit over the last year.
“However, once voters are reminded of how the senator has delivered for the people he is so proud to represent, we are certain those numbers will change,” Soliman said in a statement.