A former aide to Sen. Bob Menendez said in court testimony Monday about his work on visa issues for the New Jersey Democrat that he was never asked to do anything illegal on the senator's behalf.
Mark Lopes, Menendez's then-senior policy adviser, took the stand for several hours on day three of the federal corruption trial against his former boss and a wealthy ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen.
Prosecutors sought to flesh out two different instances in which they alleged Menendez attempted to secure travel visas for Melgen's foreign girlfriends -- one from Brazil and the other from the Dominican Republic -- to visit him in the United States. In the latter woman's case, Menendez allegedly advocated for both her and her sister to visit the United States on tourist visas.
The visa allegations are just one element of the government's case against Menendez, which also includes allegations that he advocated on Melgen's behalf in various disputes with federal officials over Melgen's businesses. Menendez denies the charges.
J.P. Cooney, deputy chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, walked Lopes through a series of email exchanges that he had with other members of Menendez's staff, as well as with Melgen, about the status of the women's visa applications and interviews. In the case of the sisters from the Dominican Republic, their visa applications had initially been denied. Menendez then allegedly intervened and had Lopes call the ambassador to the Dominican Republic to resolve the situation.
The key email at the heart of Lopes' testimony was a December 2008 email from him to Menendez's chief of staff after the sisters finally had their visas approved, in which Lopes said, "in my view this is only due to the fact that RM (Robert Menendez) intervened."
When asked by Cooney about why Menendez was so actively involved in reaching out to the ambassador and embassy about the visas, Lopes said that "(Menendez) wanted to be proactive about advocating to the outcome that he sought and didn't want to wait for a response."
But Lopes also noted that he worked on such requests "once every month or two months or three months" as a part of his job, in which he specialized in foreign policy issues.
Menendez's attorney, Raymond Brown, emphasized in cross-examination that all the correspondence about potential visas was consistently couched with language indicating that Menendez's staff always sought to act within the law in their requests.
Using American Express points
Earlier in the day, attorneys questioned Andrew Thomas, vice president of the membership rewards program management team at American Express, about a Paris hotel room that Melgen purchased for Menendez using membership rewards points.
Justice Department attorney Amanda Vaughn guided Thomas through a number of credit card and rewards statements from both Menendez and Melgen, specifically highlighting the nearly 650,000 points Melgen used to secure a room for Menendez at the Park Hyatt hotel in Paris -- a number that far surpassed the roughly 59,000 points Menendez had accumulated at the time.
Thomas noted that there is no way to transfer American Express points between individuals -- a potentially important point because the defense team contends Menendez said he would reimburse Melgen's points. Thomas estimated it could take Menendez roughly 30 years at his then-current rate of spending to earn as many points as Melgen had spent on the hotel stay.
US District Court Judge William Walls continued in his colorful reprimands of both sides' attorneys, stopping the proceedings to remove the jury five times -- once for more than 20 minutes. His qualms on Monday once again centered on the rules about the relevance of evidence.
Brown in particular tangled with Walls at length, raising concerns that the prosecution would likely later use evidence from Lopes' email exchanges against the senator during closing arguments if the defense was not allowed to rebut with evidence of their own on Monday.
But Walls suggested the attorney's concerns were misplaced.
"You draw on things from Agatha Christie," Walls said.