By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The heart of the bribery case against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez could collapse mid-trial on Monday, after the judge overseeing the trial suggested he might throw out the most serious charges in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the definition of corruption.
Judge William Walls, of federal court in Newark, New Jersey, is expected on Monday to rule on the defense's motion to dismiss, five days after U.S. prosecutors rested their case against Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
Walls expressed serious doubts at that time that the evidence was sufficient, citing last year's Supreme Court decision vacating the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.
Prosecutors have accused Menendez, 63, of taking bribes from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for using his office to help the doctor in a variety of ways. Both men deny wrongdoing and say Melgen was acting out of friendship.
Following several hours of arguments on Wednesday, Walls seemed prepared to accept the defense's contention that McDonnell invalidated a bribery theory known as "stream of benefits," in which someone offers bribes essentially to keep a politician on retainer, rather than paying for specific acts.
"Does stream of benefits still live?" Walls asked prosecutors. "If stream of benefits still lives, then you've got a chance."
The McDonnell decision has already caused several corruption convictions to be overturned, including those of former top New York state lawmakers Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos.
Even if he dismisses the top charges, Walls has said the trial will continue on at least one charge: that Menendez made false statements by failing to disclose the gifts.
During the trial's first six weeks, prosecutors presented evidence that Menendez pressured federal officials to secure visas for Melgen's girlfriends, resolve a port dispute involving one of Melgen's businesses and change a Medicare reimbursement policy after the agency determined Melgen had overbilled it by millions of dollars.
In exchange, Melgen showered Menendez with private flights, luxury vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign backing, prosecutors said.
The defense argued that the prosecution failed to show a link between the gifts and the acts, which took place over a period of years.
The case has been closely watched in Washington, where Republicans hold a 52-48 edge in the Senate. If Menendez is convicted and either resigns or is expelled before Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's term expires in January, then Christie would name his replacement.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)