NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Attorneys began questioning potential jurors Tuesday for next month’s federal corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
The New Jersey Democrat was charged in 2015 with accepting campaign donations and gifts, which included vacation trips to Paris and the Dominican Republic, from a Florida eye doctor in exchange for using his position in Congress to lobby for the man’s business interests.
The Palm Beach County doctor, Salomon Melgen, is a co-defendant in the case.
Opening arguments are scheduled for Sept. 6, and the trial is expected to last about two months.
Menendez and Melgen have argued in court papers that the gifts and donations were innocent and that there was no bribery agreement. Menendez also claims his actions were legitimate legislative duties.
Melgen was convicted in April on multiple counts of Medicare fraud in a separate trial. Menendez wasn’t implicated in that case, but part of the indictment charges him with interceding on behalf of Melgen in a Medicare dispute.
The government’s case centers on meetings and interactions Menendez had with, among others, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and acting Medicare administrator Marilyn Tavenner.
Jurors will have to weigh whether those fall under the category of “official acts” under a law whose definitions have shifted in the wake of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in the case of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.
If Menendez is convicted and steps down or is forced out of the Senate — a move that would require a two-thirds majority vote — before Gov. Chris Christie leaves office Jan. 16, the Republican would pick a successor. The seat is up for election next November.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy has a large lead in polls ahead of his Republican challenger in the race to replace Christie.
Republicans have a 52-48 edge in the Senate, but their slim majority is one of the factors making it difficult for the GOP to push President Donald Trump’s agenda. An attempt to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health law fell by one vote last month.
Menendez had a 44 percent approval rating in a Quinnipiac University poll released in June, but the same poll found that 44 percent of voters don’t think he deserves to be re-elected next year. The poll of 1,103 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.