Did he take bribes, or was he duped by his wife? Arguments under way in Menendez trial

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MAY 14: U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) arrives for trial at Manhattan Federal Court on May 14, 2024 in New York City. Menendez and his wife are accused of extortion, obstruction of justice, and accepting bribes to perform favors for businessmen with connections to Egypt and Qatar after gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were found at his home. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

After a slow start, Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial hit warp speed Wednesday, with the defense team using opening arguments to blame everything on his wife and ending the day by demanding a mistrial.

With 12 jurors and six alternates seated after two and a half days of questioning, the case kicked off after lunchtime with prosecutor Lara Pomerantz methodically outlining the 18-count indictment against Menendez — a Democrat and New Jersey’s senior senator — and two of his co-defendants, businessman Wael Hana and Edgewater real estate developer Fred Daibes.

“For years, Robert Menendez abused his position to feed his own greed and to keep his wife happy,” Pomerantz said. “Menendez put his power up for sale, and Hana and Daibes were more than happy to buy it.”

But defense attorney Avi Weitzman told the jury that there were “innocent explanations” for all of prosecutors’ accusations, and he quickly cut to what might be the heart of his defense — Menendez’s claim that his wife, Nadine, kept him in the dark about the gold bars, cash, luxury car, and other bribes she allegedly took from Hana, Daibes, and a third co-defendant Jose Uribe, who pleaded guilty in March.

“The real question for you is: What did Bob know?” Weitzman told the jury.

Daibes and Hana are standing trial alongside Menendez, and their attorneys are expected to deliver their opening statements Thursday morning. Nadine Menendez was charged too, but U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein previously postponed her trial to July because she has a medical issue.

The senator’s wife

Despite her absence in the courtroom in Manhattan, Nadine Menendez loomed large over the trial Wednesday, with both prosecutors and the senator’s defense team repeatedly referring to her and her role in a bribery scheme that prosecutors say stretched back to 2018, when the couple began dating and a year after Sen. Menendez’s last corruption trial ended with a hung jury.

Pomerantz painted her as the insulation Menendez put between himself and his alleged benefactors, saying Nadine’s role as go-between gave the senator plausible deniability.

“Menendez was careful when he was committing crimes,” she said. “He was smart enough not to send too many texts. Instead, he had Nadine do that for him.”

Weitzman, though, portrayed her as a greedy manipulator who took gold, cash, and other bribes without her husband’s knowledge. The couple had separate finances, lived separately until April 2020, and have largely led separate lives since then, and FBI agents found all the gold bars in her locked closet, Weitzman said.

While the 70-year-old senator knew his wife had gold bars, he thought they were an inheritance from her family, who had built a fortune in the Persian rug business, he added. Instead, he said, Nadine had always been financially supported by other people, including a previous husband and by her wealthy family, and consequently “tried to get cash and assets any which way she could,” Weitzman said.

“I’ll acknowledge it smells,” he said of what he called “the green and gold elephant in the room.”

Besides gold, investigators also found more than $400,000 stuffed in envelopes, jacket pockets, and shoes all over the couple’s home. Weitzman attributed that hoarded cash to the senator’s habit — forged after his family fled with nothing from Cuba in the 1950s — of making monthly withdrawals of $400 to $500 for decades and keeping the cash at home.

Prosecutors say the riches were corrupt payments for official actions that only a senator could deliver.

“Quid pro quo — this for that,” Pomerantz repeated throughout her opening statements.

Specifically, prosecutors have accused Menendez of taking gold, cash, and a no-show, “sham job” for Nadine Menendez from her longtime friend Hana to help Hana secure a monopoly on importing halal meat to Egypt.

“Hana didn’t actually have any experience in this business, but what he did have was a U.S. senator in his pocket,” Pomerantz said.

In exchange, Menendez also provided sensitive information about staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and even ghost-wrote a letter from an Egyptian official to U.S. lawmakers who had held up millions in military arms and aid to Egypt over concerns about human rights abuses there, prosecutors allege.

Menendez also tried to disrupt the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey’s prosecution of Daibes and a fraud investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office involving Uribe, an insurance broker who was friends with Hana, prosecutors said.

In exchange, Uribe gave Nadine $15,000 in cash in a parking lot as a down payment on a $60,000 Mercedes Benz convertible and continued to make monthly payments afterward for years, Pomerantz said.

“This was not politics as usual. It was politics for profit,” she said. “Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take, motivated by greed and focused on how much he could put in his own pocket, and in his wife’s pocket.”

Weitzman insisted prosecutors were “wrong, dead wrong.”

Menendez took no bribes and never acted as a foreign agent for any government, he said.

“The actions Senator Menendez took were actions on behalf of constituents,” he said.

His interactions with Egyptian and Qatari officials were merely him “engaging in diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. government,” he added.

Weitzman urged jurors to remember Menendez’s long history of public service. Menendez has served in the Senate since 2006, in the House from 1993 to 2006, and in the New Jersey Legislature and Union City politics before that.

“He’s an American patriot,” Weitzman said.

About that mistrial motion

Stein rejected defense attorney Adam Fee’s argument that Pomerantz tainted jurors during her opening statements by implying that Menendez agreed to publicly support Qatar to help Daibes land an investment from a member of Qatar’s royal family in exchange for gold bars and cash.

Fee accused Pomerantz of violating Stein’s order that prosecutors couldn’t discuss the substance of a resolution supporting Qatar that Daibes allegedly urged Menendez to introduce to help him secure the investment.

“This is angels dancing on the head of a pin, your honor. They are injecting this case with that inference,” Fee said.

But after a heated back-and-forth between Fee and prosecutor Daniel Richenthal, Stein denied the mistrial motion.

“There’s no basis for it,” he said.


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