By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - The corruption trial of Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez ended in a mistrial on Thursday, after the jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked on bribery, fraud and other charges.
Menendez, 63, a longtime fixture in New Jersey political circles who first joined the Senate in 2006, was accused of accepting private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen, in exchange for official favors.
The hung jury is a major setback for federal prosecutors in what was their first high-profile corruption trial since a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year limited their ability to bring such cases.
The jury deliberated for most of last week before restarting their discussions on Monday after one juror had to be replaced due to a scheduling conflict. Jurors first indicated they were having trouble reaching a verdict on Monday.
It was not immediately clear whether the Justice Department would seek to retry Menendez, who is running for re-election next year.
Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors had cherry-picked gifts exchanged between close friends in an effort to suggest impropriety when none existed.
The mistrial provides at least temporary relief for Menendez's Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Had Menendez been convicted, Republicans would likely have pushed for either resignation or expulsion, giving Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a chance to replace him and extend the Republicans' current 52-48 edge.
The case was seen as a test for prosecutors in the wake of last year's Supreme Court ruling vacating the bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. In doing so, the high court narrowed the grounds on which the government can prosecute officials for corruption.
The trial judge, Williams Walls, had strongly considered a defense motion to throw out the case mid-trial in light of the McDonnell decision before deciding against it.
U.S. prosecutors accused Menendez of pressuring Medicare officials to change the agency's billing practices after it concluded that Melgen overbilled it by millions of dollars.
Melgen was separately convicted in Florida earlier this year of a massive Medicare fraud, though his sentencing was delayed pending the outcome of the New Jersey trial.
According to the government, Menendez also helped secure visas for the married Melgen's foreign girlfriends and asked U.S. officials to resolve a port dispute in the Dominican Republic involving one of Melgen's businesses.
In exchange, Melgen showered the senator with gifts such as luxury vacations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign support, prosecutors said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown)