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Sen. Bob Menendez corruption trial set to begin in New York

New Jersey Democrat has foreshadowed possible defenses to bribery and other charges

A conviction could result in prison time for New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, 70, who in 2015 was indicted on federal corruption charges in a separate case.
A conviction could result in prison time for New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, 70, who in 2015 was indicted on federal corruption charges in a separate case. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Bob Menendez is set to stand trial in Manhattan federal court starting Monday in a sprawling corruption case brought by prosecutors who say the New Jersey Democrat accepted bribes, acted as a foreign agent and obstructed justice.

The onetime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vowed to defend himself since an initial indictment alleged he and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, which included cash, gold bars and a luxury vehicle.

Attorneys for Menendez have previewed in court filings possible defenses the senator could lean on, including potentially putting the blame on his wife.

The attorneys, in a letter disclosed in court filings, also have outlined arguments that the senator storing cash was a coping mechanism tied to trauma related to his father’s suicide and a family history of having funds confiscated by the Cuban government.

A conviction could result in prison time for the 70-year-old senator, who in 2015 was indicted on federal corruption charges in a separate case. In that case, the jury could not reach a verdict in 2017 and a judge acquitted the senator in 2018 on the most serious charges. The Justice Department later dropped the rest of the charges.

In this case, Menendez, who has served as a member of Congress for more than three decades, faces 16 criminal counts that include bribery, extortion and acting as a foreign agent. Menendez has not resigned from his position despite calls to do so from some fellow Democrats, and in a video this year he said he’s hopeful that an exoneration will allow him to pursue his candidacy “as an independent Democrat in the general election.”

The trial could affect work in the closely divided Senate since Menendez will be attending the trial in New York City.

The senator will not be tried alongside his wife. A federal judge overseeing the case rescheduled his wife’s trial for July, after her attorneys last month said she was recently diagnosed with a “serious medical condition” that would require a surgical procedure.

But Menendez will be tried with two other co-defendants: Fred Daibes and Wael Hana. Daibes is a real estate developer who was a longtime fundraiser for the senator, while Hana is originally from Egypt and was friends with Menendez’s wife, according to the indictment.

Another Menendez co-defendant, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty in the case, including conspiracy to bribe Menendez and the senator’s wife with a Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Case details

Federal agents executed a search warrant on Menendez’s home in June 2022 and found the “fruits” of the couple’s bribery agreement with the three businessmen, according to the updated indictment. Agents found more than $480,000 in cash, more than $100,000 worth of gold bars and a luxury vehicle, along with home furnishings provided by some of the businessmen, the indictment states. Authorities also said some envelopes that contained cash had the fingerprints or DNA of Daibes or his driver.

In remarks after the initial indictment, Menendez asserted that he has a long history of withdrawing money from his personal savings account for emergencies and because of a history of his family “facing confiscation” in Cuba.

Menendez’s attorneys, in a letter disclosed in court filings, said the senator plans to call Dr. Karen B. Rosenbaum as an expert witness. The doctor is expected to testify that Menendez suffered “intergenerational trauma” that stemmed from his family’s experience as refugees, in which the Cuban government confiscated their funds and left them with only a “small amount of cash that they had stashed away in their home,” according to the letter.

The attorneys wrote that a lack of treatment led to a “fear of scarcity” and a “longstanding coping mechanism of routinely withdrawing and storing cash in his home.” The doctor is expected to testify that the senator “experienced trauma when his father, a compulsive gambler, died by suicide after Senator Menendez eventually decided to discontinue paying off his father’s gambling debts.”

Prosecutors have moved to preclude Rosenbaum’s testimony, saying her conclusion does not appear to be “the product of any reliable scientific principle or method.” They also argue the testimony is simply a way to develop sympathy based on his family background.

Other defenses

In another defense, a legal brief from Menendez’s attorneys said the senator might choose to testify about communications with his wife “that serve to materially decrease any inference of culpability on Senator Menendez’s part.”

According to the brief, the senator could testify about the explanations his wife gave for why certain businessmen gave her monetary items. The brief said explanations would tend to exonerate the senator but “may inculpate” his wife by showing the ways she hid information from the senator or “otherwise led him to believe that nothing unlawful was taking place.”

Authorities have accused Menendez of promising to take actions because of the bribes. Authorities say Menendez sought to interfere in a New Jersey state criminal prosecution of an associate of Uribe’s, along with a state criminal investigation involving an employee of Uribe’s.

Menendez also is accused of improperly pressuring an official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect a business monopoly that Egypt granted to a co-defendant. The monopoly was utilized in part to fund the bribes to the senator, through his wife, according to the indictment.

In the lead-up to trial, attorneys for Menendez pointed to protections in the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution while arguing that an earlier iteration of the indictment be thrown out. But the district judge in an order said none of the counts in the previous indictment should be dismissed on those grounds.

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