Menendez defense lawyer denies bribery scheme and says gold bars found at senator’s home belonged to his wife

Sen. Bob Menendez’s lawyer launched his defense Wednesday in a Manhattan courtroom, insisting that the New Jersey Democrat never engaged in the international bribery scheme described by federal prosecutors and asserting that there were “innocent explanations” for the tangle of alleged crimes that has already upended Menendez’s political career.

“They want you to be blinded by the gold and the cash,” Menendez attorney Avi Weitzman told the jury, suggesting that many of the items the senator allegedly took as bribes – including gold bars and a luxury car – were owned or obtained by his wife, Nadine, who is also charged and set to go on trial in July.

Menendez has been charged with acting as a foreign agent on behalf of Egypt and assisting the government of Qatar, all while taking bribes from several New Jersey businessmen. He is being tried with two of his co-defendants: Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman, and Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer. All three have pleaded not guilty. Menendez is not running for reelection in next month’s Democratic primary but has said he would consider an independent bid should he be exonerated.

In a federal courthouse, blocks from the site of former President Donald Trump’s hush money trial, prosecutor Lara Pomerantz told jurors in her opening statement that they would see evidence and hear testimony of a yearslong conspiracy between Menendez, his wife and two New Jersey businessmen to take bribes while using his power to influence military aid to Egypt and pressure prosecutors and investigators to stop investigations and criminal cases.

“Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take,” Pomerantz said. “Motivated by greed, focused on how much money he could put in his own pocket and his wife’s pocket. That is why we are here today. That is what this trial is all about.”

While Nadine Menendez, who has also pleaded not guilty, is not yet on trial, her alleged actions and influence on her husband were a key part of the defense’s opening statement. Weitzman repeatedly argued that the couple have mostly led “separate lives” and “had separate finances.”

“They even had a separate cell phone plan,” he added, before spelling out a series of “financial concerns that (Nadine) kept from Bob,” whom Weitzman described as being smitten by a “beautiful and tall, international woman.”

Weitzman also argued that Menendez “was acting lawfully” in his role as a US senator, portraying interactions prosecutors have called corrupt as mere diplomatic efforts for the US and advocacy on behalf of his New Jersey constituents – including some longtime friends.

“You might not like it,” Weitzman said, “but it is not a crime.”

In explaining the gold bars found in Menendez’s house by investigators, Weitzman again pointed the finger at the senator’s wife, who, he said, kept the “family gold.”

Nadine, Weitzman said, is from Lebanon, where keeping gold is “cultural,” in part because of the region’s historically unstable currencies, while adding that gifts of gold and silver are common for weddings and engagements.

“Evidence will show Nadine’s family had a lot of gold,” Weitzman said, asserting that she did not discuss money with the senator and kept financial problems she had from him.

Weitzman also said the gold bars were found in Nadine’s locked closet, which the senator didn’t have access to. To emphasize the point, the defense showed the court an image of a walk-in closet, which appeared messy.

Among the “innocent explanations,” Weitzman suggested there was nothing abnormal about co-defendant Daibes’ fingerprints on envelopes containing tens of thousands of dollars in cash found in the senator’s home, stating that the two had been friends for decades.

“Would you be surprised,” Weitzman asked, “to find your friend’s fingerprints on one of your belongings?”

Opening statements for Daibes and Hana will begin Thursday morning.

Jury selection

Pomerantz’s and Weitzman’s opening statements began Wednesday following the swearing-in of 12 jurors and six alternates.

During the nearly-three-day juror selection process, the pool of potential jurors was read a list of more than 100 possible witnesses in the case, from sitting and former US senators to several sheikhs and former White House officials, as well as a list of companies and entities, including Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The vast majority of those named on the witness list – which is used to help attorneys and the court whittle down the jury pool – will not be called to testify.

The potential jurors – an array of New Yorkers, including pastors, a standup comedian and amateur musicians – were pressed on whether they could be unbiased and fairly consider testimony from law enforcement officers or convicted criminals.

“I’ve already told you ladies and gentlemen how important it is that this case proceed with a fair impartial jury,” federal judge Sidney Stein told the potential jurors on Tuesday, saying that means “people who come without any bias” ready to put aside “anything about this case” they’ve heard from the media.

“This system will only work if people are fair and honest and impartial,” Stein said.

The initial group of 150 potential jurors was pared down to less than 100 after the initial phase of the selection process, during which people cited travel plans, including an overseas bar mitzvah and a Paris research grant, as well as work and health issues, when asked if any hardships would prevent them from sitting on a trial that could last over a month.

One potential juror spoke about being a “news junkie” who couldn’t sit on the trial because “I’ve learned about the case significantly. I knew it was Bob Menendez the second I walked in.”

Stein asked if the potential juror could set aside prior knowledge and solely rely on evidence and testimony to decide this case, to which the person replied: “I mean, I think so, but again, you know, this is something I’ve read about.”

When one potential juror cited his new job at a fashion consulting agency and fears that he could be let go if he had to sit on the jury, Stein told him that the trial could be “very interesting.”

“I don’t want you to lose your job,” the judge said, “but by the same token, I think you’ll find this – I think all jurors would find this case … to be very interesting and informative.”

During the more direct phase of questioning potential jurors on what they did for a living and where they got their news, the judge was more lighthearted, bantering with them at times.

After one potential juror said he worked in neuroscience, Stein told him that during a break “you’ll have to tell me … how a worm gets in somebody’s brain,” referring to independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s revelation about a parasitic worm previously entering his brain.

“And again, I’m not doing that to be facetious; I just want to avoid it,” the judge said.

This story and headline have been updated with additional information.

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