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Judge denies Menendez push to dismiss some criminal charges

New Jersey Democrat sought to use lawmaker protections under the Speech or Debate clause

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., participates in the news conference Thursday.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., participates in the news conference Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A federal judge denied Sen. Bob Menendez’s motion to have four charges in his bribery case thrown out, after the New Jersey Democrat argued those actions are protected by the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein of the Southern District of New York said in an order Thursday that the allegations Menendez sought to get dismissed are not related to legislative acts and therefore not protected by the clause that shields members from being questioned on those grounds.

Lawmakers often make the argument when they face criminal prosecution related to their office. Former Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter are among those who most recently unsuccessfully argued for protection by the Speech or Debate Clause in their criminal matters.

Menendez had asked the judge to dismiss charges related to his recommendation to the president of a nominee for a U.S. attorney role in his state, as well as his meetings and actions regarding foreign aid to Egypt that includes disclosure of sensitive nonpublic information to officials in that country.

Stein’s order means the case will move forward with the charges Menendez contested: conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right and conspiracy for a public official to act as a foreign agent.

Stein wrote that acts covered by the clause include members voting, conduct at hearings and legislative fact-finding, and he ruled that does not include recommending someone for a U.S. attorney role.

And on the contention that Menendez is protected by the law on the Egyptian aid charge, Stein said those don’t meet the standard for a legislative act.

“Surely meetings with, and the provision of information to, Egyptian officials in relation to a corrupt bribery scheme must be viewed as occurring outside of the legislative process,” Stein wrote.

Stein also denied a request by the senator to toss a charge that accuses him of acting as a foreign agent. Stein rejected an argument that the allegation was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.

Menendez, who has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence, faces a mound of corruption charges ranging from obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent to extortion and bribery. His trial is scheduled to begin May 6, but that is subject to change.

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