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The judge overseeing U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s trial on federal corruption charges has made it a personal crusade to impose harsh sentences on officials who are found guilty of violating the public trust.
“We, the people of the United States, are sick and tired of political and public officials being on the take,” said Judge William Walls in 2015, when he imposed a 70-month sentence on a Union County official who admitted stealing about $120,000 from the county.
Menendez faces a lengthy prison sentence if he is convicted of all 12 counts against him for allegedly doing government favors for Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen in exchange for lavish vacations, private jet flights and campaign cash.
Walls, 84, who sits in Newark, will preside over the jury trial in federal court, which threatens to end Menendez’s long political career, and could hand Republicans another vote in the U.S. Senate.
Walls was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994, after a long career in the state judiciary and in Newark government. He rose from a poor family in Atlantic City, where he was raised by his father and grandfather after Walls’ mother left when he was two years old, according to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s testimony at Walls’ confirmation hearing.
Although Walls’ family could not afford to send him to college, he won “a slew of academic scholarships,” according to Lautenberg, graduating from Dartmouth as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and, later, Yale Law School. He worked as Newark’s corporation counsel and business administrator before becoming a state Superior Court judge in the late 1970s.
“In my mind, he is the embodiment of the American dream,” Lautenberg said at the time.
Walls faced one of his first corruption cases as counsel in Newark in 1973, when he advised the City Council to oust its president following tax-evasion charges. Walls determined that one of the tax charges constituted “moral turpitude” —which was grounds for removing a member — over the objections of the Council president, who sought to remain on the Council despite pleading guilty.
Since he was appointed to the federal bench, Walls has occasionally excoriated prosecutors for going too easy on defendants and granting little sympathy to those convicted of corruption in his courtroom.
In the case of the Union County official convicted of stealing $120,000, prosecutors and defense lawyers had asked Walls for a more lenient sentence based on the defendant’s cooperation. Walls rejected that request, bemoaning the “ridiculous” pattern of prosecutors seeking lesser sentences for “people who were corrupt in their public duty.”
Walls’ strong statements have attracted notice among local attorneys.
“It’s unusual, I think, for a judge to speak so frankly and clearly to prosecutors in this way,” said defense attorney Robert Walker, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity section — the same section that brought the case against Menendez. “It’s certainly not inappropriate for him to do so, but it is not common.”
In 2007, Walls ignored prosecutors’ calls for leniency in sentencing former Ocean Township Mayor Terrance Weldon, despite years of cooperation with the feds. Prosecutors even warned at the time that it could make other defendants reluctant to cooperate, according to The Star-Ledger. But Walls said he was “amazed” at the number of corrupt public officials in New Jersey, calling them “thugs.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the commission of such crimes deserves severe punishment,” Walls said at Weldon’s sentencing, according to The Star-Ledger. “It does us no good to pat him on the wrist.”
Wells sentenced Weldon to 58 months in prison — a particularly harsh sentence that prosecutors warned could make defendants reluctant to cooperate, according to the newspaper.
In 1998, Walls similarly refused pleas for leniency by prosecutors and defense attorneys for two Palisades Park cops who cooperated with the feds after being charged in a police burglary ring. “If he hadn’t been the leader of this activity, maybe he would not have had an incentive to be this fully cooperative,” Walls said of one of them.
Walls recently made headlines when he upbraided the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office for seeking a three-year probation sentence for a Union County official who admitted stealing federal housing money.
“The society is being swindled, and your office seems to care about notching wins,” Walls said, according to The Record.
Walls has overseen Menendez case since the government filed its charges in 2015. That year, he threw out four bribery charges against Menendez and Melgen, but left the indictment largely intact. He also declined a request by Menendez’s attorneys to move the case to Washington D.C.
During jury selection on Tuesday, Walls sometimes joked with prospective jurors, but also showed irritation when one juror was caught texting about the case.
“Weren’t you instructed not to text about this case? So you’re really no good as a juror,” Walls said to the woman, who told him she was a teacher. “And you may not be any good as a teacher.”
It is not clear whether Walls’ history of harsh sentences will influence Menendez’s legal team, which is led by veteran attorney Abbe Lowell.
“Would it make me nervous as an attorney?” said Walker, the former federal prosecutor, who is not involved in the case. “I don’t know if it would make me nervous, but you’d certainly have to take a hard look at it and say: what are the risks of this case, what are the likelihood of succeeding at trial, and if it looks like it’s going to be hard to succeed at trial, we’re going to face a judge who has a reputation as a tough sentencer in public corruption cases.”
A spokesman for Menendez said the question of Walls’ sentencing was not relevant and that Menendez expects to be exonerated. The legal team is prepared to go to trial.
“The senator is in good spirits, has faith in the American system of justice, and is confident that when all the facts are heard, he will be vindicated,” said Lowell, the defense attorney, in a statement.