Indictment in Menendez trial closes with defense ruling ‘ridiculous’

NEW YORK — Sen. Bob Menendez’s litany of explanations for why a stack of cash and gold bars was in his home when the FBI searched it defies logic, prosecutors said Tuesday, particularly the veteran lawmaker’s “ludicrous” claim that he didn’t know the stacks of cash and other treasures were in his bedroom closet because his wife kept the door locked.

The government’s closing arguments, as Menendez’s two-month corruption trial draws to a close, reminded jurors of everything they had seen and heard in the testimony: the incriminating text messages, the source of all that money and the value of the brick-sized bars, and Menendez’s attempt to handpick a federal prosecutor in New Jersey who he said would thwart the 2018 bank fraud indictment of a friend.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Monteleoni laughed at the idea that Menendez’s wife, Nadine, had secretly accumulated thousands of dollars without his knowledge. He said, “He clearly had access to the closet in his own bedroom.”

“Throughout this trial, you heard everyone getting blamed except Menendez,” Monteleoni said in his five-hour argument.

Menendez, 70, is charged with 16 felonies, including bribery, extortion and acting as a foreign agent. The government alleges he benefited from a wide-ranging conspiracy in which he offered favors and influence in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts. The case has tarnished his long political career; a conviction could result in significant prison time and a ban on ever holding public office again.

The New Jersey Democrat was previously indicted on unrelated federal corruption charges in 2017, but the case was not retried after a jury reached a deadlock and the trial was declared a mistrial.

A search warrant executed in June 2022 at Menendez’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J., home yielded the trove of evidence used against him and two co-defendants in this trial. Agents found more than $480,000 in cash, some of it stashed in envelopes in the lawmaker’s jackets. At the time, he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a role that brought him into contact with foreign governments that prosecutors say he began exploiting. (He was removed as chairman after he was indicted.)

“Friends don’t give friends envelopes filled with $10,000 in cash just out of friendship. Friends don’t give those same friends pounds of gold bars worth $60,000 each out of the goodness of their hearts,” Monteleoni said Tuesday.

The Menendezs allegedly accepted a Mercedes-Benz convertible and a $23,000 payment to cover a mortgage debt, with gifts pouring in before and after their October 2020 wedding. Nadine Menendez is charged in the conspiracy but will go to trial at a later date. She is undergoing treatments for breast cancer while her husband is on trial.

Wael “Will” Hana, an Egyptian resident of New Jersey, is a co-defendant who allegedly served as a liaison between the couple and Egyptian officials. Hana, a longtime friend of Nadine Menendez, is accused of giving her a salary for a low-profile job through a Halal meat certification company in exchange for her husband attending meetings and implementing policy priorities as directed by Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.

The senator is also accused of helping to get Philip Sellinger appointed as U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, which he eventually did, in the hope that he would get prosecutors to drop an investigation into real estate developer Fred Daibes. “Menendez tried to stop the investigation, just as he was paid to do,” Monteleoni said.

That plan fell through, jurors heard, because Menendez was unable to control Sellinger and the prosecutor withdrew from the case after taking office.

Daibes is the last co-defendant in the current trial, and prosecutors allege that Menendez, at his request, made positive statements and promised to submit a resolution to the Foreign Relations Committee praising Qatar for its efforts to evacuate people from Afghanistan after the U.S. military withdrawal. Daibes was trying to solicit a multimillion-dollar investment from a member of the Qatari royal family at the time, prosecutors say.

All three men have pleaded not guilty. Businessman Jose Uribe, accused of bribing the senator, pleaded guilty in March and testified for the government. He told jurors that Menendez asked him for details about a criminal case that Uribe wanted the senator to “stop and kill” after he began financing a luxury convertible for the lawmaker’s then-girlfriend.

Monteleoni said a mountain of compelling evidence overshadowed the defense’s narrative, characterizing Menendez as a once-trusted elected official who was so entangled in his corruption that he agreed to help Egypt and Qatar in exchange for gifts and cash.

“What your common sense tells you is that the money and the gold were part of a corrupt return,” the prosecutor argued.

Menendez’s attorney, Adam Fee, challenged an FBI agent’s testimony that the senator’s jacket was in the bedroom closet with the stash of gold and cash, when in fact it was elsewhere in the house. The agent corrected himself a day after being confronted with the details under cross-examination.

The evidence in the case was “not overwhelming” but “cherry-picked nonsense,” Fee said as he began his argument late Tuesday night. He criticized prosecutors for telling a “false narrative” about reckless bribes and called his client’s actions “lawful, normal and good for his constituents in this country.”

If Menendez kept cash in his home, it’s because “everyone in his family was basically hoarding cash” after they were attacked and looted by authorities in Cuba before fleeing to the United States in the 1950s, Fee said. Even though he was born in New York afterward, Menendez still followed his parents’ example, he said.

“They want you to conclude that every dollar must have been a bribe,” Fee said of the government. But he insisted: “There is no text, no email, no photograph that shows Senator Menendez accepting a bribe — because there isn’t one!”

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