Bob Menendez Jurors Held Gold Bars, Saw Secret Video, Eyed Cash

(Bloomberg) -- Jurors in the corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez held the gold bars stashed in his house, read romantic messages from his wife amid their tumultuous relationship, and heard government witnesses recount how his entreaties alarmed them.

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Over seven weeks, prosecutors presented a sprawling case in New York federal court, where they accuse the New Jersey Democrat of selling his office by taking about $500,000 in cash, 13 gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz from businessmen seeking favors.

Closing arguments will begin as soon as Monday in the trial of Menendez and two of the businessmen, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes. Menendez faces 16 counts, including bribery and acting as a foreign agent of Egypt. His wife, Nadine, will be tried later because she’s undergoing cancer treatments.

Menendez, 70, didn’t testify during the trial, but his lawyers sought to shift blame to his wife for failing to tell him about her shaky finances and gifts she received from the businessmen. They also offered innocent explanations for the cash and gold, and for contacts with government officials that the US says were criminal.

When deliberations begin this week, jurors will have more than 1,300 exhibits to consider. Here are a few, and the stories they illustrate:

Cash Counters

FBI agents raided the Menendez home in June 2022, seizing cash in jackets, bags, a safe and the senator’s office. FBI Special Agent Aristotelis Kougemitros testified there was so much cash they needed two counting machines to tally it all. The agent displayed about $100,000 in cash to the jury.

An FBI accountant also testified that envelopes containing $82,500 were linked through fingerprints and DNA to Daibes, a developer.

Menendez’s lawyers said the senator routinely withdrew about $400 in cash from a bank account for at least 15 years. Jurors heard extensive testimony about the dates that the seized cash was printed. Menendez’s sister also testified that her family regularly kept cash: “It was normal. It’s a Cuban thing.”

Gold Bars

Kougemitros recounted how he found gold bars in Nadine Menendez’s locked closet. Prosecutors allowed jurors to pass around the gold bars. US District Judge Sidney Stein said: “The jury has gotten a feel for the weight of gold, and they’re looking forward to lunch.”

Jurors later heard from jeweler Vasken Khorozian, who testified that he helped Nadine Menendez sell gold several times in the weeks before the FBI raid. Nadine Menendez told the jeweler that the bars came from her wealthy Lebanese family. “She said she needed to pay the bills,” Khorozian said. Her sister also testified as a defense witness, saying Nadine kept family gold for years.

Ring That Bell

A third businessman, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty and testified he bribed Nadine Menendez with a Mercedes so the senator would influence two criminal matters being handled by the New Jersey attorney general’s office. One involved an indictment of a friend, and the other was an investigation of a woman Uribe treated like a daughter. Uribe said he feared the insurance fraud probe would reach him.

In early 2019, Menendez called the New Jersey attorney general at the time, Gurbir Grewal, after Uribe repeatedly pressed the senator’s wife for his help. Months later, Menendez asked Grewal to come to his office. On the night before they met, Uribe testified, he sat on a patio behind the Menendez house, drinking Grand Marnier. Menendez needed paper to write down information, so he summoned his wife from the house, Uribe said. “He called for Nadine by something like, mon amour, and he also rang a bell,” Uribe said.

After prosecutors closed the pending investigation, Menendez called Uribe. Moments later, Uribe texted Nadine Menendez: “I just got a call and I am a very happy person. GOD bless you and him for ever.” A few days later they celebrated at a restaurant, Uribe said.

When Uribe saw Menendez in a different restaurant a few months later, Uribe said, the senator told him in Spanish: “I saved your a*s twice. Not once but twice.”

‘That Was Gross’

Grewal testified that he spoke to Menendez once by phone in 2019 and then again in the senator’s office months later. Each time, according to Grewal, Menendez said he was concerned about insurance fraud investigations of Hispanics in the trucking industry. He didn’t mention a case by name but referred to a lawyer for the trucking company owner who was under indictment. Grewal said he told Menendez he couldn’t discuss pending investigations.

For the meeting with Menendez, Grewal brought his top deputy, Andrew Bruck. Afterwards, Bruck said to Grewal: “Whoa, that was gross.”

‘Treated Unfairly’

Prosecutors say Menendez tried to influence the outcome of a separate fraud indictment of Daibes in New Jersey. The top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, Philip Sellinger, testified about seeking Menendez’s endorsement for the US attorney’s job in late 2020. Sellinger said the lawmaker told him Daibes “was being treated unfairly, and Senator Menendez hoped that if I became US Attorney that I would look at it carefully.”

Sellinger said he told Menendez he might be recused from the Daibes case because of a conflict of interest. Menendez briefly backed someone else before endorsing Sellinger again. Sellinger said Menendez never pressured him or used aggressive language about Daibes, and he didn’t believe the senator asked him to do anything. With Sellinger recused, Daibes pleaded guilty in a deal calling for no jail time.

Still, the friendship Sellinger and Menendez had developed over years of dinners and golf was over. Menendez declined to attend his investiture ceremony, telling Sellinger: “The only thing worse than not having a relationship with the United States attorney is people thinking you have a relationship with the United States attorney, and you don’t.”

‘Stop Interfering’

Prosecutors accuse Menendez of accepting bribes to help protect an Egyptian monopoly that Hana received to certify US meat as compliant with halal standards. Former US Department of Agriculture undersecretary Ted McKinney testified that he grew alarmed when Egypt abruptly terminated the rights of several US companies and tapped a company run by Hana, who had no experience.

McKinney said he was pushing Egypt in May 2019 to reconsider to avoid sharp price increases for some beef products. Menendez called him and referred to an article that discussed the change in certification companies.

McKinney said Menendez’s words were unforgettable: “Stop interfering with my constituent.”

Morton’s Steakhouse

Jurors watched a secret FBI video recording of Menendez dining, laughing and pouring wine in 2019 at Morton’s steakhouse in Washington. Those at the table included Hana, an Egyptian intelligence official and Nadine Arslanian, who was his girlfriend at the time. The mood was upbeat, testified FBI surveillance specialist Terrie Williams-Thompson.

“They were eating, they were talking, they were laughing, they were smoking,” she said. Toward the end, Williams-Thompson heard Arslanian say: “What else can the love of my life do for you?” Arslanian and Menendez married a year later.

Egyptians Spies

Prosecutors showed jurors evidence that Hana and Nadine Arslanian spent plenty of time arranging for Menendez, then the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to meet with Egyptian officials. Jurors also heard that Hana was supposed to speak daily with General Ahmed Helmy, Egypt’s top spy in Washington. In one message to Helmy, Hana referred to Menendez as “our man.”

The Egyptians sought Menendez’s influence in expediting US military arms sales and financing. Jurors saw one text in which Menendez told Arslanian to tell Hana that the senator would sign off on a $99 million ammunition sale to Egypt.

The case is US v. Menendez, 23-cr-490, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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