NEWARK — The judge in Sen. Bob Menendez's bribery trial questioned jurors Monday about comments made last week by a dismissed juror that defense attorneys say could have contaminated the deliberations.

Four jurors and three alternate jurors told U.S. District Judge William Walls they had heard or read something about the trial over the weekend, and he began questioning them individually in his chambers.

Jurors have been told repeatedly not to read reports about the case.

The dismissed juror told reporters on Thursday she anticipated a hung jury and that she would have voted for acquitting the Democratic senator on all counts. She also said some jurors told her that her vote "didn't count" because she had to leave by Thursday for a previously scheduled vacation.

The panel is set to start over Monday with an alternate juror in her place.

Defense attorneys argued Monday that Evelyn Arroyo-Maultsby's comments that she was told she couldn't send the judge a note last Wednesday could represent a breach of protocol. Walls downplayed any intimations that the jury had been compromised and accused defense attorney Abbe Lowell of making an issue of it because "she was on your side."

"My way of looking at things is, it's nothing more than what she said to them inside the deliberation room," Walls said, referring to Arroyo-Maultsby's public comments. "Juror no. 8 is no longer with us, an alternate is taking her place and in effect we're having a new jury with instructions to start from scratch and forget about last week. That we have a disgruntled juror, from a practical sense, is really of no moment to me."

Prosecutors alleged Menendez and wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen engaged in a bribery scheme between 2006 and 2013 in which Menendez traded his political influence for luxury vacations and flights on the doctor's private plane.

They each face about a dozen counts including bribery, fraud and conspiracy. Menendez also is charged with making false statements for failing to report Melgen's gifts on Senate disclosure forms.

Both men deny the allegations. Defense attorneys have sought to show jurors that the two men are longtime friends who exchanged gifts out of friendship. They also contend Menendez's meetings with government officials were focused on broad policy issues.

Arroyo-Maultsby's comments appeared to indicate at least some, and possibly a majority, of the jurors may believe the defense's theory.

The jury has deliberated roughly 15 hours over three full days and part of last Monday. If the newly constituted panel fails to reach a verdict over the next several days, Walls would have to weigh how long to let them continue before declaring a mistrial.

The government then would choose whether to retry the pair.

If Menendez is acquitted, it would reinforce the view that official bribery cases have become more difficult to prosecute, a trend traced to last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the bribery conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. That ruling played a significant role in how the jury was instructed in the Menendez trial.

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