Bob Menendez Gets Boost at Bribery Trial From a Prosecutor

(Bloomberg) -- The top federal prosecutor in New Jersey appeared to help Senator Bob Menendez at his bribery trial Tuesday by telling jurors that the Democratic lawmaker never pressured him to do anything improper.

Most Read from Bloomberg

US Attorney Philip Sellinger testified at the trial of Menendez, 70, who’s accused of taking bribes of gold bars, cash and a Mercedes Benz from businessmen seeking favors, including developer Fred Daibes.

Prosecutors say Menendez tried to influence the outcome of a separate fraud indictment in New Jersey of Daibes. Last week, Sellinger told jurors about seeking Menendez’s endorsement for the US attorney’s post. He said the lawmaker said Daibes “was being treated unfairly, and Senator Menendez hoped that if I became U.S. Attorney that I would look at it carefully.”

Listen and follow The Big Take DC on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts

But on cross-examination Tuesday, Sellinger said Menendez never pressured him or used aggressive language when they spoke in December 2020.

“I did not believe that he was asking me to do anything other than my official duty,” Sellinger told New York federal jurors. “I didn’t believe he was asking me to do anything.”

Menendez attorney Avi Weitzman said: “It’s fair to say that he didn’t ask you to put your thumb on the scales of justice?” Sellinger agreed.

Prosecutors are seeking to prove that Menendez and Daibes entered into an illegal agreement, and that the senator recommended Sellinger, an old friend and fundraiser, for the prosecutor’s post because he believed he could influence him in the Daibes case.

The U.S. charged Menendez, 70, with several bribery plots and acting as an agent of Egypt. He’s on trial with Daibes and an Egyptian American businessman, Wael Hana. Another businessman who pleaded guilty, Jose Uribe, testified that he bribed Menendez’s wife, Nadine, with a Mercedes Benz, so the senator would sway two criminal investigations in New Jersey. She faces a separate trial because she has cancer.

Sellinger testified he told Menendez he would ask the Justice Department whether he needed to recuse himself because he had worked on private litigation in a case against Daibes.

After that, Sellinger said, Menendez told him he would not endorse him for the job, preferring instead to go with a Hispanic prosecutor, Esther Suarez, whose candidacy ultimately foundered after a series of unflattering news articles. Menendez later endorsed Sellinger’s nomination by President Joe Biden.

But Sellinger said their longtime friendship cooled because he chose to distance himself from elected officials after getting the job. After getting the post, Sellinger was recused from the case. Daibes later pleaded guilty under a deal that would have brought him probation, but the judge in that case later tossed out the plea.

As he left the courthouse, Menendez said: “Sellinger made it very clear — he was asked to do nothing wrong and he did nothing wrong.”

The Sellinger testimony came after a trial delay of several days because Daibes had Covid. Jurors have heard more than a dozen witnesses since testimony began last month. US District Judge Sidney Stein told jurors the trial could run until mid-July, even though they were initially told it would last six weeks.

After Sellinger testified, jurors heard from Michael Soliman, a top political advisor to the senator. Soliman said Menendez’s former chief of staff, Fred Turner, told him in late 2020 that “the senator and Mr. Sellinger had a falling out and the senator was going to go in a different direction.”

Soliman said he kept Menendez apprised of Suarez’s sinking candidacy and how “a lot of people didn’t think she was the right person for the job.”

On cross-examination, Weitzman suggested that Menendez considered Suarez because of a Biden directive to increase diversity for appointments like US attorneys. He sought to defuse the allegation by prosecutors that Menendez recommended Sellinger’s nomination by Biden for corrupt reasons.

Weitzman asked if Sellinger had “wide respect” in the legal community and whether he was “clearly qualified” for the US attorney post. Soliman agreed.

Soliman also said that Menendez never told him that he asked Suarez about the Daibes case.

(Updates with Menendez comment.)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.