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Sen. Bob Menendez’s trial, where gold bars may shine, begins Monday

By Salvador Rizzo Washington Post

Bars of gold, stacks of cash, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and foreign intelligence officials could all make cameo appearances as Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) goes on trial Monday – for the second time in a decade – on federal charges that he used his position and influence to benefit a trio of businessmen who were plying him with luxury gifts.

Menendez’s previous corruption case featured similar bribery allegations but ended in 2017 with a deadlocked jury in New Jersey. This time, experts say the once-powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee faces a tougher task: convincing jurors in Manhattan federal court that he legally obtained the ingots, cash, convertible and other items seized from his home in 2022.

Federal prosecutors allege that Menendez and his wife were being bribed with those gifts by New Jersey businessmen who sought the lawmaker’s help paving the way for lucrative deals they had lined up with the governments of Egypt and Qatar. A 66-page indictment says Menendez tried to pressure law enforcement officials in New Jersey to drop criminal investigations into three people connected to him.

The Justice Department says Menendez ultimately became a foreign agent for Egypt, secretly maneuvering to send it U.S. military aid despite resistance in Congress because of that country’s alleged human rights violations. He faces 16 felony counts – including bribery, extortion, fraud, obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent – and could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted on all charges.

In the indictment, a team of prosecutors under U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York described how one of Menendez’s co-defendants, Wael “Will” Hana, was granted a monopoly by the Egyptian government as the sole U.S. business authorized to certify halal meat exports to Egypt. Hana funneled proceeds from that business to Menendez’s wife, Nadine Menendez, who set up a shell company to receive payments from a low-show or no-show job, prosecutors allege.

Menendez allegedly provided sensitive, nonpublic information to Egyptian officials in exchange, divulging the number of people stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and their nationalities. Prosecutors say Menendez also ghostwrote a letter on behalf of Egypt to other U.S. senators, asking them to release a hold on $300 million in aid to that country.

“Tell Will I am going to sign off this sale to Egypt today,” Menendez wrote in a 2018 text message to then-girlfriend Nadine that was quoted in the indictment, a reference to a $99 million sale of tank ammunition pending before the Senate. “NOTE: These tank rounds are for tanks they have had for many years. They are using these in the Sinai for the counter-terrorism campaign.”

Daniel Richman, an expert on federal bribery law at Columbia Law School, sees a clear distinction in the two corruption cases. “What the government really has going for it in this case, unlike the prior one, is the picture of a powerful senator renting his office to a foreign power,” he said.

Defense attorneys, former prosecutors and law professors point to other significant differences.

The bribes Menendez was accused of taking at his 2017 trial involved more than $700,000 donated to campaign committees supporting his 2012 reelection bid, as well as lavish accommodations on a trip to Paris, undisclosed flights on a private jet and stays at a villa in the Dominican Republic owned by his friend and co-defendant at the time, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.

None of that became Menendez’s personal property, the legal experts note, unlike the items seized from his Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, residence. The indictment says Hana also paid thousands of dollars toward the home’s mortgage and mentions several other gifts Menendez and his wife received from the businessmen, including a recliner chair, an elliptical exercise machine and an air purifier.

“That tangible evidence – all those luxury goods, gold bars, wads of cash – will no doubt speak volumes in the prosecution’s case,” said Stuart Green, a Rutgers Law School professor.

Menendez and Melgen presented a unified defense seven years ago, describing a longtime friendship and frequent travels together. This time, one of the individuals who allegedly bribed Menendez has already pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Jose Uribe could take the stand and recount handing Nadine Menendez $15,000 in cash at a parking lot the day before she made a $15,000 down payment on the Mercedes-Benz convertible, as the indictment alleges.

Nadine Menendez needed wheels because she had totaled an earlier Mercedes-Benz in a crash that killed a pedestrian in Bogota, New Jersey, as reported by She was not charged in the man’s death.

Defense attorneys suggested in a legal filing that Menendez may cast some blame on his wife, who was indicted alongside him but is scheduled to be tried separately later this year. A court filing unsealed last month says the attorneys may argue that his wife withheld information from him “or otherwise led him to believe that nothing unlawful was taking place.”

“I am innocent, and will prove so,” the 70-year-old senator told constituents in a video message in March, when he announced he would not seek the Democratic nomination to run for a fourth term this November. “I am hopeful that my exoneration will take place this summer and allow me to pursue my candidacy as an independent Democrat in the general election.”

He added: “All I can ask of you is to withhold judgment until justice takes place.”

But Gov. Phil Murphy, Sen. Cory Booker and a raft of other high-ranking New Jersey Democrats have called on Menendez to resign. A poll released in March by Monmouth University found that 63 percent of respondents in the state said he should leave office, compared with 28 percent who were surveyed after his 2015 indictment.

Twelve senators in U.S. history have been indicted while in office. Six have been convicted. Two of those convictions were later overturned by courts. Menendez is the only senator to be indicted in two unrelated criminal investigations.

“Anytime an individual is indicted two times in a row for, let’s call it public corruption, the odds are not in his favor,” said Chris Adams, a defense attorney at the New Jersey law firm Greenbaum Rowe, which was part of Menendez’s 2017 legal team. “My view as a defense attorney is that this is a much stronger case for the government.”

The latest indictment quotes liberally from text messages and conversations Menendez and his wife had with each other and with Egyptian officials. At a Washington steakhouse in 2019, Nadine Menendez asked an Egyptian intelligence official dining with the couple, “What else can the love of my life do for you?” the indictment says.

The next year, according to the indictment, she sent the same official a text message that said “anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen.”

New Jersey real estate developer Fred Daibes is Menendez’s other co-defendant. In a 2019 text, Nadine Menendez complained to him that Hana “had not paid her what he owed her,” the indictment says, with Daibes responding: “Nadine I personally gave Bob a check for September.”

The senator is also accused of using his influence in 2020 to try to get the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey to drop its prosecution of Daibes in a separate fraud case. Daibes later pleaded guilty to that offense and was sentenced to probation.

Adams said Menendez has several potential avenues of defense. The senator could indeed blame his wife, whom he started dating in 2018 and married in 2020. Nadine Menendez won’t be present at her husband’s trial because she will be undergoing a medical procedure and then recovering, according to court records, which opens up the possibility of an “empty chair defense,” Adams said.

Menendez also could maintain, as he did in his previous trial, that he was acting in his official capacity. “His job is to lobby for constituents, for those who support him, for those who present him with valuable arguments in favor of a position,” Adams said.

He has already previewed one likely defense claim – saying that, as the son of Cuban immigrants, he was raised in an environment where storing large amounts of cash at home was not unusual. The indictment details how federal agents found nearly half a million dollars “stuffed into envelopes” and “hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe” when they raided his home in 2022.

Menendez is represented by Adam Fee, Robert Luskin, Avi Weitzman and Yaakov Roth, who was part of the legal teams that won victories at the Supreme Court for the New Jersey “Bridgegate” defendants and former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R). In each case, convictions on corruption charges were reversed.

The prosecution team includes Christina Clark, Catherine Ghosh, Eli Mark and Paul Monteleoni. Another member, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz, was part of the team that successfully prosecuted Ghislaine Maxwell for sex-trafficking young girls on behalf of her paramour, financier Jeffrey Epstein. Prosecutor Daniel Richenthal helped secure a prison sentence of more than two years for Michael Avenatti, the former lawyer for Stormy Daniels who was convicted of attempting to extort Nike.

U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein, who is presiding over the trial, in March rejected Menendez’s arguments that his advocacy for the three businessmen was protected by the Constitution’s “speech and debate” clause.

Green, the Rutgers Law professor, said the Supreme Court narrowed the definition of what constitutes an “official act” when tossing McDonnell’s corruption conviction in 2016. “Some of what Menendez is alleged to have done, like setting up meetings and making contacts, may well fall within the scope of the McDonnell exemption,” he said. “But it’s hard to argue that other conduct, such as releasing holds on military sales and disseminating nonpublic information about embassy staffing, would not constitute official acts.”

Veteran New Jersey defense lawyer Joseph Hayden Jr. said he never thought a jury would convict Menendez in 2017 based on what he described as purely circumstantial evidence. But he remains skeptical that the new case against the senator is stronger than the last. One of the jurors in that trial told reporters after its conclusion that the jury leaned 10-to-2 toward acquitting Menendez because prosecutors had not provided “smoking gun” evidence clearly establishing that he and Melgen had a corrupt agreement to exchange things of value for official acts.

“Bob Menendez is a fighter,” Hayden said, “and he’s fighting this.”