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Menendez’s lawyer tells jury bribery case is ‘painfully thin’

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) leaves Manhattan Federal Court on July 09, 2024 in New York City. Prosecutors wrapped up closing arguments, giving way to the defense to begin in Sen. Menendez’s trial. Menendez is charged with corruption after gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were found at his home. Menendez and his wife, Nadine, are accused of extortion, obstruction of justice and accepting bribes to perform favors for businessmen with connections to Egypt and Qatar.   (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
By Maria Cramer and Maia Coleman New York Times

NEW YORK – During a closing argument that stretched for nearly six hours over two days, a lawyer for Sen. Bob Menendez tried to take apart the vast and complicated case that prosecutors spent weeks building against his client, calling it “painfully thin.”

Menendez, D-N.J., who is being tried alongside two businesspeople, has been indicted on 16 felony counts, including bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice, acting as a foreign agent and conspiracy.

Prosecutors have shown jurors hundreds of text messages, emails, bank records and photographs of nearly half a million dollars in cash and gold bars that were found in the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, home of Menendez, 70, and his wife Nadine, 57. The couple received the gifts between 2018 and 2022 in exchange for political favors, the government says.

But Adam Fee, one of Bob Menendez’s lawyers, said in a closing argument Wednesday that prosecutors had failed to connect any of that evidence to an act of bribery or corruption. Menendez’s actions, such as calling government officials about investigations involving constituents or pushing for aid to Egypt, were part of his job.

“This case, it dies here today,” Fee said. “Because they have failed to prove that very high standard that Bob’s actions were anything other than what we want our elected officials to do.”

Fee finished his marathon closing argument just before the lunchtime break, testing the patience of jurors, who had also withstood a five-hour summation from prosecutors.

Jurors had arrived looking alert and refreshed Wednesday morning, but as the closing argument went on, some appeared to grow fatigued and restless.

Some fidgeted. Others looked at the clock. One juror’s eyes were closed.

Since May 13, Menendez and his two co-defendants, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, have sat in Courtroom 23A in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, where prosecutors have outlined a large-scale bribery scheme. They accused the senator of using his position to aid Daibes with a bank fraud investigation against him and to help Hana protect a halal meat certification monopoly he received from the Egyptian government, among other favors.

At the center of that scheme, the government says, was Nadine Menendez, who was friends with both Hana and Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer and a longtime ally of the senator. Federal prosecutors have portrayed her as an eager go-between, who texted and arranged meetings with Hana and Daibes in order to shield Bob Menendez from suspicion.

In their opening statements, Menendez’s lawyers shifted the blame to Nadine Menendez, casting her as an opportunist who took advantage of the fact that she and the senator lived largely separate lives to hide her financial problems and desire for luxuries from him. Hana and Daibes were not seeking political favors, according to the defense. They were helping her get cash and assets “any which way she could” as she kept Bob Menendez “in the dark.”

Nadine Menendez was also charged, but her trial has been postponed because she is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She has pleaded not guilty.

Bob Menendez’s strategy of blaming his wife risked turning off jurors, according to legal observers, and prosecutors accused the defense in their closing of making Nadine Menendez a scapegoat.

By the end of the trial, Bob Menendez’s lawyers had softened their descriptions of Nadine Menendez. In his closing, Fee called her a “vulnerable” woman who had not worked for years and in 2018 was trying to get out of an abusive, overlapping relationship with another man, which briefly derailed her relationship with the senator.

When they got back together the next year, she kept her financial troubles from Bob Menendez out of fear of losing him again, Fee said.

“She was trying to present an image that would make Bob stay with her,” Fee said. “This is not us shifting blame to anyone. This is the truth.”

During his closing, Paul M. Monteleoni, one of the federal prosecutors, reminded jurors of testimony by Jose Uribe, a former insurance broker who said that he agreed to buy Nadine Menendez a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible in exchange for the senator’s help quashing a state investigation into Uribe’s trucking company.

During his testimony, Uribe, who has pleaded guilty, described a meeting in the patio of the Menendezes’ home, when, he said, the senator rang a bell to call Nadine Menendez outside.

“He’s not a puppet having his strings pulled by someone that he summons with a bell,” Monteleoni said during his closing argument Tuesday.

In his closing, Fee said the senator had no knowledge of the agreement between his wife and Uribe, whom he described as a liar who took advantage of Nadine Menendez’s desperation.

Uribe wanted a meeting with Bob Menendez in exchange for the Mercedes, which he got, but by Uribe’s own admission, there was never a conversation about a quid pro quo, Fee said. “His testimony doesn’t stand up,” Fee said. “He helped disprove the charges.”

Fee mentioned other government witnesses who, he argued, ended up helping Menendez’s case. Philip R. Sellinger, New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, said he never felt Menendez was asking him to do “anything unethical or improper” when he talked to him about a criminal case against Daibes, Fee reminded jurors. And Ted McKinney, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Menendez never threatened him or intimidated him during a brief phone call about Hana’s meat monopoly.

Uribe, Fee said, was another witness whom prosecutors called but who ended up helping Menendez’s case.

The defense doesn’t have the burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt, Fee said. “They do. But the evidence is on our side.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.