Defense Blames Senator Menendez’s Wife as Bribery Trial Starts

A lawyer for Senator Robert Menendez on Wednesday laid blame for the bribery charges the senator faces squarely on his wife — a woman he found “dazzling” but who, his lawyer said, hid her past dire finances and the source of her newfound income from her powerful husband.

She had kept him in the dark about “what she was asking others to give her,” the lawyer, Avi Weitzman, told a jury in opening statements at the start of the senator’s federal corruption trial in Manhattan.

The gold and some of the cash that the F.B.I. found in a search of the senator’s New Jersey home — items that prosecutors say were bribes — were kept in a locked closet where his wife, Nadine Menendez, stored her clothing, Mr. Weitzman said.

“He did not know of the gold bars that existed in that closet,” Mr. Weitzman added, describing Mr. Menendez as an American patriot and “lifelong public servant” who “took no bribes.”

Prosecutors have charged Mr. Menendez, 70, and his wife with accepting gifts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including cash, gold, home furnishings and a $60,000 Mercedes, in exchange for political favors for friends at home and the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

It is the second bribery trial of Mr. Menendez, a Democrat who has long been dogged by allegations of corruption. He walked away largely unscathed from the first, which ended in a hung jury in 2017 in New Jersey. But the new charges, leveled in September by a federal grand jury in Manhattan, are likely to end the senator’s three-decade career in Congress.

On Wednesday, a federal prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, presented Mr. Menendez as a high-ranking elected official with his hands out all the time, a senator “who put his power up for sale.”

“This was not politics as usual,” Ms. Pomerantz said as she mapped out a complicated web of charges, using short sentences and colloquial language. “This was politics for profit. This was a United States senator on the take.”

The trial and the wildly clashing portraits of Mr. Menendez promised to offer a rare look at the inner workings of government and the private life of one of the nation’s most powerful elected officials.

More than once Ms. Pomerantz turned and gestured toward Mr. Menendez, who was seated behind her, flanked by his lawyers. The senator leaned forward attentively, but showed no obvious emotion, his hand at times resting on his chin and over his mouth.

The indictment charges Ms. Menendez with being a go-between who acted as a conduit for bribes and messages. And the senator’s defense, if not gallant, also may not harm her own defense; it is unlikely to be admissible as evidence at her trial, which is slated to start in July.

Ms. Menendez, 57, was not in court on Wednesday.

She was initially to be tried alongside her husband, but the judge, Sidney H. Stein, postponed her trial after her lawyers said she had a “serious medical condition” that would require surgery and a potentially long recovery period. Her lawyers had no comment about Mr. Weitzman’s claims.

Because she is facing charges herself and legally cannot be compelled to testify against her husband, it is unlikely that she will testify at Mr. Menendez’s trial.

Mr. Weitzman, in an hourlong statement, told the jury that the senator was aware of gold that Ms. Menendez said she had inherited from her family — rug dealers, originally from Armenia, who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon when Ms. Menendez was a child. But he said she had kept secret other gold bars that prosecutors say were given to her by a co-defendant, Fred Daibes.

The couple began dating in early 2018 and married in 2020, about six months after Mr. Menendez moved into his fiancée’s modest, split-level home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

The senator, Mr. Weitzman said, was enchanted by Ms. Menendez, who has a master’s degree in French and speaks four languages.

“Bob fell for her,” he said.

But they never shared a bank account, or even a cellphone plan, he said, and spent much of the week living apart while the senator was in Washington.

Mr. Menendez is being tried with two New Jersey businessmen — Mr. Daibes and Wael Hana — who prosecutors say benefited from the scheme and helped to funnel bribes to the couple. The senator, his wife, Mr. Hana and Mr. Daibes have all pleaded not guilty.

The charges against Mr. Menendez, when first announced by Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, rattled Washington and spurred calls for the senator’s resignation, even from previously staunch supporters like New Jersey’s junior senator, Cory Booker, and the state’s governor, Philip D. Murphy.

Judge Stein told prospective jurors that the trial could last nearly two months. Much of the prosecution’s case will be presented through the testimony of witnesses, including a New Jersey businessman, Jose Uribe, who was charged and later pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.

The prosecutor, Ms. Pomerantz, indicated the government would also display for the jury what the indictment described as “fruits” of the alleged bribery scheme.

These include some of the more than $480,000 in cash and 13 bars of gold bullion, worth more than $100,000, that prosecutors say were found in the search of the Menendezes’ home, in June 2022. Much of the cash was stuffed in envelopes and hidden in clothes, closets and a safe, the indictment says.

Mr. Menendez, in news conferences and interviews, has consistently maintained his innocence, saying he would be exonerated and leaving open the possibility of running for re-election in November as an independent. But he declined to seek the Democratic nomination for the seat, and a June 4 primary is proceeding without his name on the ballot.

On the Senate floor in January, he said the Southern District prosecutors had built charges on “baseless conjecture, not facts,” and that they were engaged “not in a prosecution but a persecution.”

The indictment alleges an audacious array of schemes. Mr. Menendez is accused of steering weapons and aid to Egypt at a time when there were questions in Congress over that country’s human rights record. He tried to interfere with several state and federal criminal investigations that involved Mr. Uribe and Mr. Daibes, prosecutors say. He also is charged with using his influence to help Mr. Hana’s halal meat certification business win a lucrative monopoly in Egypt.

“Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take, motivated by greed, focused on how much money he could put in his own pocket and in his wife’s,” Ms. Pomerantz told the jury.

Soon after he was charged, Mr. Menendez offered a public explanation for at least some of the cash investigators discovered in his house. He said he routinely withdrew large sums of money from his savings account, a custom he said he had learned from his Cuban immigrant parents.

Mr. Menendez’s lawyers have since said in court papers they wanted to have a psychiatrist testify about the senator’s habit of stockpiling money. The doctor, they wrote, would tell the jury that the practice was rooted in deep psychological trauma tied to the death by suicide of Mr. Menendez’s father nearly a half century ago, and a family history of confiscated property in Cuba.

The government objected to the potential testimony, and on Tuesday Judge Stein said he would not allow it.

The jury of six men and six women — as well as six alternate jurors — was selected and sworn in by Judge Stein a little before 1 p.m. on Wednesday, after two-and-a-half days of questioning. The jurors come from New York City and Westchester County, and several of them have advanced degrees. The group includes a retired economist, an entertainment consultant and an occupational therapist.

Lawyers for Mr. Hana and Mr. Daibes were expected to deliver opening statements on Thursday.

Nicholas Fandos, Maria Cramer and Maia Coleman contributed reporting.

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