How a Last-Ditch Effort to Save Robert Menendez From Prosecution Backfired

Last September, a prominent white-collar defense lawyer met with federal prosecutors in Manhattan in a last-ditch effort to stave off an indictment against his client.

The client was Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, one of Congress’s most powerful members and the subject of a corruption investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. In the meeting, the lawyer, Abbe D. Lowell, used a PowerPoint presentation to convey explanations for certain financial payments that were under scrutiny by the government.

It was a moment of great risk and potential peril for Mr. Menendez — and the effort failed.

Less than two weeks later, prosecutors announced an indictment charging the senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, with conspiring to accept thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for political favors. The government later added counts of obstructing justice, saying the senator, among other things, “caused” his lawyer to meet with prosecutors and to make false and misleading statements in an effort to cover up the scheme.

The government has made it clear that Mr. Lowell, who represented Mr. Menendez only during the investigation and not afterward, engaged in no wrongdoing. But the episode, an untold chapter in the story of the Menendez investigation that was recently disclosed in documents and testimony filed in the senator’s case, illuminates the normally confidential presentations lawyers make as they seek to persuade prosecutors not to charge a client, particularly one as high-profile as the senator.

“Lowell may have believed he knew all of the facts,” said Benjamin Brafman, a leading defense lawyer in New York who is not involved in the case. “But clearly, if the government is right, Menendez misled him.”

“This is high-stakes poker, and the government obviously called his bluff,” Mr. Brafman added.

Tatiana R. Martins, a former chief of the Southern District’s public corruption unit and now in private practice, said the decision to charge Mr. Menendez, 70, with obstruction based in part on Mr. Lowell’s presentation was unusual and aggressive — “kind of a warning shot to the white-collar bar to weigh carefully the decision to make any factual representation to the government when they are close to indicting.”

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