Menendez “put his power up for sale,” prosecutor argues in bribery trial

Jury of 12 selected for Sen. Bob Menendez trial

Jury of 12 selected for Sen. Bob Menendez trial 01:26

After the prosecution portrayed Sen. Bob Menendez as a “corrupt” politician who “put his power up for sale” in the pursuit of lucrative bribes, the New Jersey Democrat’s counsel pinned the blame on his wife as opening statements began Wednesday afternoon in his bribery trial. 

Menendez is accused of trading his influence and power to foreign governments and three New Jersey businessmen in a complex bribery scheme that spanned from 2018 to 2023. 

Twelve jurors and six alternates were sworn in before prosecutors from the Justice Department and Menendez’s attorneys laid out their case. 

Menendez is being tried alongside two of the businessmen — Wael Hana, owner of the halal meat company IS EG Halal, and Fred Daibes, a real estate developer. All three have pleaded not guilty. 

A third businessman who was indicted, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty in March and confessed to buying Menendez’s wife, Nadine, a $60,000 Mercedes convertible to influence the senator. Uribe will testify during the trial, prosecutor Lara Pomerantz said. 

“Public officials are supposed to serve the public,” Pomerantz said. “Menendez was a powerful elected official and corrupt. He betrayed the people he was supposed to serve for bribes. And what was his price? Gold bars. Envelopes stuffed with cash. Checks for a bogus job for his wife. A Mercedes-Benz convertible.” 

In four indictments, prosecutors detailed an entangled web of accusations against Menendez, his wife and the three businessmen that involve a halal meat monopoly, the Egyptian and Qatari governments and several criminal investigations. 

Pomerantz tried to simplify the case for jurors, breaking it down into three parts: Menendez allegedly pressured a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to protect a business monopoly Egypt granted to Hana; interfered in a criminal investigation and prosecution by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office related to Uribe and his associates; and attempted to influence a federal prosecution of a Daibes. 

Menendez used his wife as a “go-between” with those accused of bribing him, Pomerantz alleged. 

Nadine Menendez is likely to play a central role in the trial. The indictments portrayed her as an intermediary between her husband, Egyptian intelligence and military officials and the New Jersey businessmen who were seeking political favors from the senator. 

She was originally supposed to be tried with her husband, but her trial is now expected to take place later this summer because of a “serious medical condition” that requires surgery and weeks of recovery. She has pleaded not guilty. 

Breaking down the charges against Sen. Bob Menendez 02:49

“Nadine was dazzling to Bob,” said Menendez’s lawyer, Avi Weitzman. 

Though Menendez moved into her home in Edgewater, New Jersey, the two lived mostly separate lives, with separate finances and cell phone plans, Weitzman said, gearing up to pin the blame on the senator’s wife. 

Nadine Menendez was often supported by others and had financial challenges before she met the senator, according to Weitzman. When she sought financial assistance from the businessmen, the senator was kept in the dark, he said. 

Menendez was not a foreign agent, but a longtime public servant who did not accept any bribes, including cash, gold or a car, the lawyer said. 

During a search of the couple’s home before they were indicted last year, investigators found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and more than a dozen gold bars worth more than $100,000. 

Weitzman said the cash can be explained by Menendez withdrawing hundreds of dollars each month from his bank account and stockpiling it at home because of trauma in his past. He sought to challenge prosecutors’ claims that the cash was from the other defendants, saying some of the bills were not even in circulation anymore. 

“This has to do with his upbringing,” he said, explaining that Menendez’s parents were Cuban immigrants who stored cash at home. 

As for the gold bars, Weitzman said Menendez believed they were from his wife’s family. The gold bars were found in her locked closet, to which the senator did not have a key, according to Weitzman. He claimed owning gold bars was a cultural norm for Nadine Menendez, who was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents. 

Prosecutors say they have evidence that the senator made repeated web searches for the price of gold after receiving gold bars from Daibes. 

Lawyers for Hana and Daibes are expected to give their opening statements Thursday. 

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