Details of Sen. Bob Menendez’s expensive travel arrangements took center stage during the senator’s federal corruption trial Wednesday.
Prosecutors claim that the New Jersey Democrat accepted rides on private jets and other gifts from his friend and wealthy ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for political favors.
Melgen’s former personal pilot painted a picture for the jury of the good life: Passengers flying privately may drive straight up to the jet without going through security.
“When they’re ready to go, we go,” said Robert Nylund, who recalled taking Menendez on 16 flights “from point A to point B” during his time as Melgen’s personal pilot.
Nylund described flying the New Jersey senator on two different private jets owned by Melgen — including an eight-seat Hawker and a 11-seat Challenger with a couch that could be converted into a bed.
Attorneys for the defense team didn’t dispute that these trips happened, or that Melgen paid for them. Instead, they have argued these flights weren’t bribes, the two men are long-time friends, and the prosecution has misleadingly focused on the higher number of flight segments, or “legs,” instead of measuring by round-trip flights.
But attorneys for the Justice Department tried to emphasize the particular length — and expense — to which Melgen went to make his friend comfortable.
Reading from a 2010 email he wrote, Nylund described for the jury the aircraft “stock” needed “for the senator” including Evian water and assorted fruit juices, including, apple, cranberry and orange.
“It’s common for special passengers to have special provisions that they want,” Nylund added — though he admitted on cross-examination he couldn’t be sure whether Menendez had ever actually laid down on the pull-out couch in the “executive cabin” of Melgen’s Challenger.
Another witness, Jeffrey Wardenaar, who previously worked for a private jet company Melgen used, focused on a single chartered ride that Melgen’s “handler” arranged for Menendez in October 2010, totaling $8,036.32 from West Palm Beach, Florida, to New Jersey.
The senator was the only passenger.