Prosecutors drop charges, won't retry Sen. Bob Menendez in bribery and corruption case

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Liz Cho with more on Sen. Bob Menendez's dropped corruption charges.

Federal prosecutors decided Wednesday not to retry Sen. Bob Menendez on corruption charges that ended in a hung jury last fall, lifting the legal cloud hanging over the New Jersey Democrat as he gears up for re-election this year to the closely divided Senate.

The move brings to an end a more than five-year investigation that began with never-substantiated allegations about consorting with prostitutes and eventually resulted in a bribery indictment.

Menendez, 64, was charged with trading his political influence for gifts and campaign donations from wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen, 63. Both denied the allegations, and their 11-week trial ended in November with the jury hopeleslly deadlocked.

Menendez released this statement:
"From the very beginning, I never wavered in my innocence and my belief that justice would prevail. I am grateful that the Department of Justice has taken the time to reevaluate its case and come to the appropriate conclusion. I have devoted my life to serving the people of New Jersey, and am forever thankful for all who have stood by me. No matter the challenges ahead, I will never stop fighting for New Jersey and the values we share. I am thankful that God has answered my prayers."

Prosecutors abandoned the case after a judge last week threw out the bribery charges related to Melgen's campaign donations. Eleven charges remained before Wednesday's decision, including bribery, fraud and conspiracy.

The investigation dated to late 2012 after a story appeared on a conservative website claiming Menendez and Melgen consorted with prostitutes at Melgen's home in the Dominican Republic. Three women later recanted and said they were paid to make the false claims.

The probe widened to examine the relationship between the two men, who have known each other for more than 20 years.

The two men were indicted in 2015, charged with operating a scheme in which Menendez allegedly used his political clout in exchange for trips on Melgen's private jet to his Dominican Republic resort, a Paris vacation and other inducements.

Prosecutors said Menendez, in return, pressured government officials on Melgen's behalf over an $8.9 million Medicare billing dispute and a stalled contract to provide port screening equipment in the Dominican Republic, and also helped obtain U.S. visas for the 63-year-old doctor's girlfriends.

The senator's attorneys contended Melgen's gifts were tokens of friendship, not bribes, and argued that Menendez's meetings with executive branch officials were focused on broader policy issues than just Melgen's business interests.

Jurors later told reporters as many as 10 members of the panel were in favor of acquittal on all counts, leading many to speculate the government wouldn't pursue a retrial.

In throwing out the bribery counts involving the campaign contributions, U.S. District Judge William Walls said the government failed to show there was an explicit quid pro quo, or "this-for-that" agreement, connecting the donations and Menendez's actions.

After the mistrial, several jurors said as many as 10 of the 12 panel members were in favor of acquittal, leading some experts to speculate the government wouldn't pursue a retrial.
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