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‘Politics over profit’ Prosecutors paint Menendez as putting ‘greed first’

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NEW YORK — Prosecutors made no qualms on Wednesday painting Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) as a politically powerful but corrupt lawmaker who accepted gold bars, envelopes of cash and a luxury car in exchange for his influence, where they maintained he “put greed first.”

During opening remarks in lower Manhattan at the start of Menendez’s federal corruption trial, prosecutors laid out a case in which they contend Menendez and his wife, Nadine, engaged in “quid pro quo” with three businessmen: Wael Hana, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes.

The senator, his wife, Nadine, and the three New Jersey businessmen were charged last year in a sweeping bribery scheme where lavish gifts were allegedly traded for the senator’s ear and political sway. The timing of the charges, which include illegally benefitting foreign countries, were brought while Menendez served as chair of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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“He was powerful,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz said of the New Jersey Democrat. “He was also corrupt.” 

But attorneys representing Menendez strongly refuted the government’s theory of the case, describing their narrative of a public servant’s fall from grace as “outrageously false.” 

“In short, the evidence will show Bob was doing his job; he was doing it right,” attorney Avi Weitzman said in his opening statement.  

The senator’s scheme unfurled in three parts, Pomerantz said: He took steps to benefit Hana and Egypt. He promised to disrupt a case involving Uribe in exchange for a Mercedes-Benz convertible. And he sought to influence a different case involving Daibes in exchange for other luxury items. 

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

Uribe has since pleaded guilty to several charges and agreed to testify in the case, while Menendez’s wife will stand trial alone later this year due to a serious medical condition.  

Menendez and the other businessmen have pleaded not guilty. 

Wearing a pink tie and dark grey suit, Menendez mostly maintained eye contact with the 12 New Yorkers who will decide his fate, keeping his hands clasped on the corner of his chair as he slightly turned his body to face them. He almost always remained still. 

The two businessmen standing trial alongside the senator sat behind him. 

Defense attorneys portrayed Menendez as a family man and public servant, whose origins in authoritarian Cuba led to a penchant for keeping cash on hand. 

Federal agents allegedly found more than $480,000 in cash when they searched the Menendezes’ New Jersey home in June 2022, much of it hidden in envelopes, clothing, closets and a safe. They also reportedly found more than $100,000 worth of gold bars. Prosecutors pointed to Google searches Menendez made questioning just how much those gold bars cost. 

But Weitzman – noting the “green and gold elephant” in the room – suggested that there are “innocent explanations” for the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Menendezes stored away.  

“He did not ask for bribes,” the defense attorney said. “He did not get any bribes.” 

Menendez’s attorneys also sought to put distance between the senator’s actions and his wife’s off the bat.  

At one point, Weitzman showed jurors a slide mimicking a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle – except it was replaced with, “Where’s Bob?” – and implored the jurors to remember it each time prosecutors presented evidence about Nadine Menendez, who is not standing trial alongside her husband. 

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The courtroom erupted in laughter, and even Menendez cracked a smile after sitting stone-faced.  

“Just ask yourself: Where’s Bob?” Weitzman said, indicating the couple lived “sepetate lives” and the senator was often in Washington, D.C. 

Yet, prosecutors say that Menendez’s positioning in Washington as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put him in the perfect position to “put his power up for sale.” He stepped down from the position amid much political pressure after he was first indicted last year, in line with Democratic Conference rules. 

“For years, Robert Menendez abused his position to feed his greed,” Pomerantz said. 

Menendez previously faced corruption charges in 2015, but they were dropped in 2018 after a jury failed to reach a verdict. With the jury selected and opening remarks underway, his current trial is projected to last six to eight weeks.  

He’s one of three lawmakers who have faced criminal charges in recent months, in addition to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and now-expelled Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.).  

And, down the block from where Menendez’s trial is underway, former President Trump is also standing trial on charges he falsified business records to cover up a hush money deal with a porn actress ahead of the 2016 election. The presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party has pleaded not guilty.