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May 26, 2024

‘Politics for profit’: Prosecutor calls Sen. Bob Menendez ‘corrupt’ in opening statements of bribery case

‘Politics for profit’: Prosecutor calls Sen. Bob Menendez ‘corrupt’ in opening statements of bribery case

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., abused his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to “put greed first,” a federal prosecutor told jurors Wednesday during opening statements in Menendez‘s bribery trial.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz told the panel of 12 jurors and six alternates in New York that Menendez, the senior senator from New Jersey, “was powerful. He was also corrupt.”

“For years he betrayed the people he was supposed to serve by taking bribes,” she said.

Menendez is charged with accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes — some of it in the form of gold bars — in return for official acts as a U.S. senator.

“This was not politics as usual. This was politics for profit,” Pomerantz said.

Menendez has pleaded not guilty. He faces decades in prison if he is convicted.

His attorney, Avi Weitzman, told the jury during his opening statements that Pomerantz’s accusations were “outrageously false.”

“He did not violate the law,” Weitzman said. “There won’t be a single piece of tangible evidence the senator accepted a bribe. There is an innocent explanation for the gold and the cash.”

Weitzman said that Menendez did not know that his wife had the gold bars and that jurors should not judge someone by whom they live with. Nadine Menendez has been charged in the scheme and will stand trial later because of a health issue.

“The real question for you is: What did Bob know?” Weitzman said.

Prosecutors said Menendez and his wife accepted bribes from three New Jersey businessmen in return for his help with various issues. Two of the businessmen — Fred Daibes and Wael Hana — have pleaded not guilty and are standing trial with Menendez. The third, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty this year and agreed to cooperate with the probe.

Pomerantz said Wednesday that Uribe would provide jurors with “an inside look” at the scheme.

Attorneys for Daibes and Hana will deliver their opening statements Thursday.

The 2023 indictment alleges that it was Daibes who gave the gold bars to Menendez and his wife and that after a dinner with Daibes, Menendez searched on Google for “one kilo gold price.”

Weitzman told the jury that Menendez had searched for the term because it was common for his wife’s family to have gold bars and she needed to sell some for “legitimate reasons.”

Prosecutors have said that Menendez made positive statements about Qatar to help Daibes get a multimillion-dollar investment from a company tied to the country and that he “provided sensitive U.S. Government information” and took “other steps that secretly aided the Government of Egypt” in return for bribes from Hana.

The indictment alleges that when federal investigators searched the Menendezes’ home in New Jersey, they found over $480,000 in cash nestled away, “much of it stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe.”

The indictment further alleges that the couple received “gold bars, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle and other items of value,” such as jewelry and exercise equipment.

Menendez has denied any wrongdoing and maintained the cash is all his. “For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba,” he said in a statement in September.

The trial, which is taking place roughly two blocks from where former President Donald Trump is standing trial, is expected to last five to seven weeks.

Menendez stepped down as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee soon after he was indicted in September. He has faced numerous calls to resign from members of his own party, including fellow Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Menendez announced in March that he would not run for re-election as a Democrat this year but left the door open to a possible run as an independent if he is exonerated.

The trial is the second time Menendez, who became a senator in 2006, has stood trial on federal charges. He was charged in 2015 with illegally accepting favors from a Florida eye doctor, including flights on a private jet, a stay at a five-star hotel in Paris and more than $750,000 in political contributions for him and the Democratic Party. The case ended in a mistrial in 2017 after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Prosecutors ultimately decided not to retry him.

Julia Jester

Julia Jester is a producer for NBC News based in Washington, D.C.

Andrew Siff

Andrew Siff is a reporter for WNBC in New York.

Jonathan Dienst

Jonathan Dienst is chief justice contributor for NBC News and chief investigative reporter for WNBC-TV in New York.

Dareh Gregorian

Dareh Gregorian is a politics reporter for NBC News.

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