Menendez lawyer could seek change of venue for senator's corruption trial

A lawyer representing indicted Sen. Robert Menendez told a judge Wednesday he is considering filing a motion to have the upcoming corruption trial moved out of New Jersey and possibly to Florida, where the investigation into Menendez's relationship with a longtime friend and campaign donor began.

Attorneys for both sides were in U.S. District Court on for a status conference to discuss a trial date and deadlines for filing motions. Menendez and Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, named in a 22-count indictment earlier this month, weren't required to attend the conference and were not present.

Abbe Lowell, Menendez's attorney, told U.S. District Judge William Walls that he was contemplating filing motions to dismiss the indictment on several grounds and said he might file to have the trial moved.

"There may be no witnesses in New Jersey — zero," Lowell said afterward. "There's going to be a whole lot of witnesses in South Florida and in Washington, D.C.; some of them may be executive branch people, members of Congress. So you have to take all that into consideration when you consider venue."

Lowell also told Walls he was considering filing to have Menendez tried separately from Melgen. The indictment charges them with bribery, conspiracy and honest services fraud.

Menendez is accused of accepting nearly $1 million worth of gifts and travel from Melgen, whom the senator has called a close friend. Authorities say Menendez tried to get the State Department to intervene in a contract dispute involving a business Melgen owned in the Dominican Republic and advocated for Melgen in a Medicare billing dispute.

Melgen also was charged in a separate 76-count indictment last week alleging that he made false diagnoses and performed unnecessary surgeries that he then billed to Medicare. Government prosecutors claim the fraud could be as high as $190 million.

Both men have pleaded not guilty. Melgen is being held in Florida, and Menendez was released after making an initial court appearance in New Jersey and resumed his duties in the Senate.

How Melgen's case proceeds will affect Menendez's case and could provide grist for a motion to prosecute the men separately, Lowell said. The issue of what evidence is admissible against which defendant also is a factor.

"Statements made by a person can be admitted against that person but not necessarily against a co-defendant," he said. "Depending on what statements exist, it's possible that a motion for severance cures the problem of a piece of evidence being admissible as to one person that's not admissible as to another."

A trial date for Menendez and Melgen had been set earlier this month for July, but Walls moved that on Wednesday to Oct. 13. Lowell had sought a trial date in December or next January.