former staffer for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez testified Monday that the Democrat helped with the visa applications of friends of a wealthy doctor who faces bribery charges with him, while defense attorneys sought to show Menendez's actions were unremarkable and part of the duties of his office.
Under direct questioning from the government, former senior policy adviser Mark Lopes testified Menendez emailed him in 2008 authorizing a letter of support from Menendez to be sent to consular officials regarding the visa applications of two sisters from the Dominican Republic.
One of the emails sent around the time had a subject line that read: "Dr. Melgen's request."
One of the sisters was described by federal prosecutors as a girlfriend of Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, a longtime friend of Menendez's. The two men were indicted in 2015 and have pleaded not guilty to multiple fraud and bribery charges. Prosecutors said they orchestrated a scheme in which Melgen gave Menendez gifts and campaign donations in exchange for Menendez's political influence.
"We are preparing a general letter of support from you," Lopes emailed to Menendez and asked if it was OK to send it. "Yes, call if necessary," Menendez emailed back.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Raymond Brown, Lopes testified it wasn't out of the ordinary for Menendez or people in his office to contact officials in the Department of State over visa applications. He recalled the case of a Colombian family, also in 2008, in which Menendez called a U.S. ambassador in support of the family's application.
There was "nothing improper," Lopes testified, in Menendez's efforts on behalf of another friend of Melgen's, a Brazilian national characterized in the indictment as one of Melgen's girlfriends.
The indictment alleges that, in addition to the visas, Menendez lobbied government officials on behalf of Melgen in a Medicare billing dispute and a contract dispute involving a company Melgen owned that sought to provide port security equipment in the Dominican Republic.