A federal judge declared a mistrial Thursday in the bribery case against Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey after jurors failed to reach a verdict — but his peers in the Senate said he’ll still have to face an ethics probe there.
The 12-member jury deadlocked on all counts against Mr. Menendez, a Democrat who stood accused of accepting gifts from a wealthy friend, then intervening to try to protect Salomon Melgen — a Florida eye doctor — from scrutiny by the federal government.
Mr. Menendez’s defense team said the two men were pals and said the gifts bestowed upon the senator were tied to their friendship and not passed on in an attempt to win political favors.
After more than a week of deliberations, the jury informed U.S. District Court Judge William Walls it remained deadlocked and “cannot reach a unanimous decision.”
Choking back tears outside the federal courthouse in Newark, Mr. Menendez told reporters the legal drama showed him the “incredible weight of power of the federal government, and how it can crush you if it wants to.”
“It gives me an even greater resolve to make sure that there is a check to that awesome power,” Mr. Menendez, 63, said.
He also thanked the 12 jurors “who saw through the government’s false claims and used their Jersey common sense to reject it.”
The Justice Department said it would have to decide whether to retry the case.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mr. Menendez should now face a probe by the Senate ethics committee over the behavior that led to the charges.
“He is one of only 12 U.S. senators to have been indicted in our history,” Mr. McConnell said. “His trial shed light on serious accusations of violating the public’s trust as an elected official, as well as potential violations of the Senate’s Code of Conduct.”
The mistrial is the latest chapter in a story dating back to April 2015 when Mr. Menendez was charged with advocating on Mr. Melgen’s behalf in a $9 million Medicare dispute. Prosecutors said he also helped obtained visas for the doctor’s girlfriends in exchange for $1 million in campaign contributions and gifts — including trips to the Dominican Republic and Paris.
In April, Mr. Melgen was convicted on charges stemming from a separate case related to Medicare fraud.
John Graham, a member of the Democratic National Committee from New Jersey, celebrated the mistrial, saying the “truth has come out” but that he is disappointed Mr. Menendez was not acquitted.
“They were right, the jurors who defended him,” Mr. Graham told The Washington Times. “He did what was proper in terms of helping a constituent who happened to be his friend, but he never asked for anything for him. Bob Menendez did the right thing.”
Mr. Graham said he expects the Justice Department will be pressured to put Mr. Menendez on trial again, but said he cannot envision a jury convicting Mr. Menendez on the allegations that he interfered during the Medicare fraud investigations into Mr. Melgen.
“I think Bob Menendez is going to continue to go on and be a great senator and I think this thing is going to go away,” Mr. Graham said.
Good-government groups, meanwhile, lamented the news, saying the problem is the state of federal law, which makes bribery convictions difficult. The groups said things got worse after the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision to overturn a corruption conviction against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
In that case, a jury found Mr. McDonnell guilty of accepting gifts and loans, but the court decided his actions did not violate federal law.
“This outcome lays directly at the feet of the Court’s findings in McDonnell v. United States,” said Meredith McGehee, of Issue One, a nonpartisan group pushing to get money out of politics. “Sen. Menendez’s case is a roadmap for how donors and friends may continue to buy access and influence in Washington, whether through lending private jets, campaign contributions or bestowing other gifts.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said unless something is changed, it may be impossible to win a bribery conviction.
“Congress needs to take action to ensure elected officials are held accountable when they serve themselves rather than the people,” Mr. Bookbinder said.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.