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New Jersey Senator Menendez's lawyers seek dismissal of public corruption case

| Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Lawyers for U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., sought to persuade a federal appeals court here Monday to throw out the public corruption case against the lawmaker before it gets to trial, arguing he is protected by a law that gives members of Congress special legal consideration.

Menendez, 62, whose Senate term does not end until 2019, did not himself appear at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, where a three-judge panel peppered his defense team and prosecutors with skeptical questions. Representatives said he was traveling to Washington.

The hearing was the latest in what has been an aggressive and multi-faceted effort by Menendez's attorneys to short-circuit the case, and though the arguments were complicated and technical, the discussion again thrusts the senator into the spotlight.

Menendez was accused last year of helping a Florida ophthalmologist with government business in exchange for campaign contributions and posh getaways. He has pleaded not guilty.

Menendez is arguing that he is protected by the constitution's “speech or debate clause,” which prohibits prosecutions of congressmen for legislative activity. Prosecutors assert that the senator has not been charged for “legislative acts,” but rather, for using the power that comes with his office to help a friend and benefactor.

A U.S. District Court judge in September rejected Menendez's bid to dismiss the charges on speech or debate grounds, and he soon appealed.

Menendez's friend and benefactor, Salomon Melgen, is charged in the case with bribery and is awaiting trial.

The debate centers on different interpretations of Menendez's actions and whether or not they were legislative. By prosecutors' telling, Menendez tried to influence immigration visa proceedings for Melgen's girlfriends; assisted Melgen in a dispute with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which claimed Melgen had overbilled by $8.9 million; and advocated for action to help Melgen make money from a port security contract in the Dominican Republic. None of Menendez's conduct, they said, was truly legislative; he merely used his position to press those in other branches of government to help his friend.

In exchange, prosecutors said, Melgen lavished Menendez with first-class or private-jet flights, use of a Caribbean villa, access to an exclusive Dominican resort and a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris. Melgen also provided Menendez expensive meals, golf outings and hundreds of thousands of dollars to help his 2012 Senate campaign - often timed closely to help that Menendez gave Melgen, prosecutors alleged.

Menendez's attorneys argued that Menendez was often pursuing broader policy goals or oversight responsibilities, even when he was trying to influence those in other branches of government, and prosecutors had no evidence tying Menendez's actions explicitly to Melgen's largess.

It is unclear when the appeals court might rule, though if they allow the case to go forward, Menendez will still be allowed to press his innocence at trial, a date for which has not been set. Lowell declined to comment after the hearing.

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