NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Prosecutors in the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy donor put two of the donor's reputed former girlfriends on the witness stand Tuesday in an attempt to put Menendez's efforts to smooth their visa applications into the context of a larger bribery scheme, with mixed results.
While Rosiell Polanco-Suera testified that Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen said he was "going to fix" her initial visa denial by talking to Menendez, the second, Svitlana Buchyk, turned her testimony into a sideshow with a combative performance, saying she was only in court "because he forced me to," pointing at one of the prosecutors.
The visa applications of Polanco-Suera and her sister ultimately were granted after a second interview in the Dominican Republic. In between the two events, Menendez, New Jersey's senior Democratic senator, emailed one of his staffers and told him to call the ambassador about the matter "ASAP," the staffer testified Monday.
Using a translator for her testimony, Polanco-Suera also said she and her sister waited for hours for the first interview in November 2008 only to be dismissed by an interviewer who didn't look at documents they had brought - which included a letter from Menendez.
The second time, she said, they had little or no wait and were approved the same day.
"Had Dr. Melgen fixed it?" Justice Department attorney Monique Abrishami asked her.
"Apparently," she said.
Buchyk, described in the indictment as an actress and model, testified that she had dinner in Miami with Melgen and Menendez and that Melgen had joked that Menendez was "the guy" who had gotten her visa. But under defense cross-examination, she added she had also separately received a student visa, a work visa and a green card and "nothing has to do with the senator, nothing."
Defense attorneys have said it was customary for Menendez to help with visa applications, and not improper. On cross-examination of Polanco-Suera, an attorney for Melgen sought to show that the visa was granted primarily because the second interviewer took the time to fairly consider the sisters' application, which included the letter from Menendez.
Under questioning from defense attorney Abbe Lowell, a State Department official testified that the department receives "thousands" of congressional inquiries each year about foreign visa applications and that it wouldn't be uncommon for a second interview to be granted once an inquiry is made.
Menendez is charged with accepting bribes from Melgen in the form of vacations in the Caribbean and flights on Melgen's private plane.
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.
Menendez and Melgen have contended in court filings, and their attorneys alleged in their opening statements last week, that the gifts were evidence of the pair's longtime friendship and mutual affection, not a corrupt agreement.
The most serious charge Menendez and Melgen each face, honest services fraud, carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
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