Sen. Bob Menendez's lawyer cites 'innocent explanations' for gold and cash stash in bribery trial

Gold bars and $480,000 cash found in U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s house isn’t evidence of bribes — and the alleged quid pro quo the veteran lawmaker is accused of was actually proper and legal constituent services, his defense lawyer said Wednesday during opening arguments at Menendez’s corruption trial.

The gold seized by the FBI actually belong to the powerful New Jersey Democrat’s second wife, Nadine, and he had no idea she had any gold other than her family’s gold, Menendez’s lawyer Avi Weitzman told jurors in Manhattan Federal Court.

Nadine Menendez, wife of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, March. 21, 2024, in N.Y. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

Nadine Menendez, wife of Sen. Robert Menendez leaves Manhattan federal court, March. 21, 2024, in N.Y. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

And the cash, found stashed throughout the house, was money Menendez withdrew bit by bit over three decades, keeping it in the house because of generational trauma, Weitzman said. His parents were Cuban refugees who lost everything but the cash they hid in a grandfather clock, so he knew the value of keeping money in the house, the lawyer said.

“Of course there’s an elephant in the room, a green and gold elephant,” Weitzman said. “There are innocent explanations for the gold and the cash.”

One of the gold bars found in the home of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez. (DOJ)
One of the gold bars found in the home of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez. (DOJ)

Menendez, 70, who’s served as a U.S. senator since 2006, is accused of accepting bribes from N.J. businessmen Wael Hana, Fred Daibes and Jose Uribe in exchange for using his influence as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to benefit Egypt and Qatar, and to interfere with criminal investigations in New Jersey.

Hana and Daibes are also standing trial, while Uribe has turned government cooperator. Menendez’s wife, Nadine, faces a separate trial in July.

Fred Daibes arrives at Manhattan federal court, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)
Fred Daibes arrives at Manhattan Federal Court, May 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah)

In an opening argument that stretched over an hour, Weitzman used a flashy slide presentation that riffed off the popular “Where’s Waldo” children’s books, with an image titled “Where’s Bob?” to suggest that he had no involvement with any financial dealings between his wife and businessmen like Daibes.

He started dating his wife in 2018 and moved into her New Jersey home in 2020, the year they were married.

“Nadine had financial concerns that she kept from Bob. She was often supported by others,” Weitzman said. “But she kept Bob sidelined from those conversations. And you’ll see that in black and white.”

“Where’s Bob? I’ll tell you where, he was doing his job, in the nation’s capital.”

Weitzman said that the gold bars found by the feds, which prosecutors say came from Daibes, were actually found in his wife’s locked closet, and Menendez didn’t know what she had in there.

“He knew that she had family gold,” Weitzman said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz argued that the gold and cash were the price of Menendez selling out his country, as was a new Mercedes-Benz convertible for Nadine that Uribe paid for.

“He was powerful. He was also corrupt. For years, Robert Menendez betrayed the people he was supposed to serve by taking bribes,” she said. “This was not politics as usual. This was politics for profit … Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take.”

Menendez, who was previously charged with corruption in a separate case that ended in a mistrial, was running a multi-pronged bribery scheme with his wife as a go-between, Pomerantz said.

The prosecutor described Hana as a failed businessman with connections to the Egyptian government. Hana, she said, bribed Menendez to leak nonpublic information about the U.S. embassy to Egyptian officials, to secretly ghost write a letter meant to respond to other senators’ concerns about human rights abuses, and to help approve the sale of almost $100 million of tank ammunition to Egypt.

Hana got a benefit of his own — a monopoly on the export of halal meat from the U.S. to Egypt, at the expense of other U.S. companies that used to do that business, the prosecutors said. And when a USDA official voiced concerns, Menendez tried to run interference and muscle that official into backing down, she said. The attempt didn’t shake the official’s attempts, but Egypt still gave Hana the monopoly, she said.

Menendez also tried to pressure the N.J. attorney general and the state’s U.S. attorney into dropping criminal cases against pals of Uribe and Daibes, the prosecutor said.

Menendez’s defense lawyer said all of his actions were just part of the normal duties of being a senator — taking interest in international matters and issues that impact his constituents. The senator had no power over the criminal cases, Weitzman said, and he was just asking about allegations that Latino businessmen were being targeted for selective prosecution.

“That’s not illegal. You may not like it. But it’s not illegal,” he said. “Listening to a friend is not a crime.”

The trial continues tomorrow with opening arguments from Hana and Daibes’ lawyers


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