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Sen. Bob Menendez begins defense in corruption trial

A sister testifies about why the New Jersey Democrat's family has history of storing cash

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., arrives for trial last month in New York City.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., arrives for trial last month in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Sen. Bob Menendez’s family had a history of storing cash at home that stretched back to their Cuban roots, his older sister testified Monday, as the defense sought to offer jurors an explanation for the large amount of cash found at his New Jersey residence.

Menendez started presenting witnesses Monday in his trial in Manhattan on 16 criminal counts, with federal prosecutors accusing the senator and his wife of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes that included cash, gold bars and a luxury vehicle.

Authorities said they seized gold bars and about $486,000 in cash during a 2022 search of the New Jersey residence the senator shared with his wife.

The senator’s legal team began their defense Monday by calling his sister Caridad Gonzalez, who spoke about the family advice they received about distrusting banks and keeping money at home.

Storing cash in the home was a practice for Cubans who came to the United States in the decades after World War II, she said, mentioning that her father while in Cuba kept cash in a grandfather clock.

“Mostly anything is that they were afraid of losing everything they worked so hard for, because, in Cuba, they took everything away from you, whether you liked it or not,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also testified that warnings about trusting banks were handed down from her father.

“Daddy always said ‘Don’t trust the banks. If you trust the banks, you never know what can happen, so you must always have money at home.’ And this was something, so to speak, that they say to you and say it to you so many times that it’s — it sort of forms a law inside of you,” she said.

Gonzalez recalled she was working for Menendez at his legal practice in the 1980s when he asked her to go get $500 from a box in a closet at his home. She found money stacked flat in the box — an inch or two in height — but didn’t have a reaction to him storing cash, she testified.

“It’s normal. It was normal. It’s a Cuban thing,” Gonzalez said.

It remains unclear if the senator will take the stand and testify in his own defense. Menendez has previously pointed to his family’s Cuban heritage in making his defense to the public.

After federal authorities announced the charges against him last year, Menendez spoke out publicly and said he’s withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from his personal savings account for decades, keeping the funds for emergencies and due to a family history of facing confiscation in Cuba.

“Now this may seem old fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years,” he said last year.

Previously, jurors heard from FBI agent Aristotelis Kougemitros, who walked through the seizure of the gold bars and about $486,000 in cash from the New Jersey residence. The sheer amount of bills found was too much to count by hand, he testified.

“Two agents came with cash-counting machines,” Kougemitros said. “I was directed that if I seized the cash, that I needed to count it in place. So I called in reinforcements.”

The trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday.

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