The federal corruption trial into New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen added a new character on Tuesday: current Florida congressman and former Gov. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg.
Crist's unannounced 2010 visit to Melgen's home is being used by Menendez's defense team to show that the New Jersey senator was engaged in a political, not personal, relationship when the eye doctor paid for Menendez's flight from New Jersey to Florida.
Crist, a former Republican who was running as an independent for U.S. Senate in 2010, visited Melgen's home in Palm Beach County on the weekend of Oct. 9, 2010, the same weekend that federal prosecutors allege that Melgen bribed Menendez by paying for his flight on a private jet.
Melgen's wife, Flor Melgen, testified in federal court on Tuesday that Crist showed up to their home, but Salomon wasn't there.
“He was looking for my husband. He knew that my husband was Bob’s friend, and he was wondering if he might be with him,” Flor Melgen testified. “I didn’t know he was going to spend the night at my home and I wasn’t prepared.”
Crist dined with Flor and her family before meeting Salomon later in the evening.
“I had to order food because there was no food prepared at my house,” Flor Melgen said.
Crist was in the midst of a U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek at the time, a race eventually won by Rubio. Crist's spokesperson said in an email to the Miami Herald that his visit to Melgen's house was political in nature.
"The Congressman was a candidate for the U.S. Senate at the time, meeting with a potential donor," said Crist spokesperson Erin Moffet.
Federal prosecutors allege that Salomon Melgen supplied Menendez with private flights, hotel stays, vacations and thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for official favors. Menendez is a Cuban-American New Jersey Democrat who frequently sides with Miami Republicans that favor a hard line against Cuba.
Defense attorneys argued that Menendez's Oct. 2010 trip to Florida was political in nature and used Crist's visit to back up their theory. If the trip was political, defense attorneys argue that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee should have reimbursed Melgen instead of Menendez paying for the trip himself.
After Crist spent the night at Melgen's house, he wrote a $100 check to cover his visit, according to Flor Melgen.
"I was very surprised when he gave me the check," Melgen said. "I asked him why, and he told me it was because of the dinner and because he spent the night at my house."
Prosecutor Monique Abrishami used Crist's check as a way to further bash Menendez during cross-examination.
“This is a check from Charlie Crist to your husband?” Abrishami said.
“Yes,” Flor Melgen said.
“So at least this politician knows how to pay you back for things?” Abrishami said.
Federal judge William Walls then instructed the jury to ignore Abrishami's remark.
"What lawyers [do] from time to time...is engage in the practice of a ‘throwaway question," Walls said. "A throwaway question is one that the questioner knows obviously is objectionable and he or she wants to make a point."
Earlier this week, Walls allowed the trial to proceed on all charges after Menendez's defense team attempted to have the most serious charges thrown out.