Bob Menendez Used Prosecutor’s Job Interview to Lobby for Friend

(Bloomberg) -- A New Jersey lawyer who became the state’s top federal prosecutor in 2021 testified that Senator Bob Menendez told him during a job interview that a friend had been indicted “unfairly” and he should review the case carefully if he got the position.

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US Attorney Philip Sellinger testified Wednesday at the bribery trial of Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat accused of accepting gold bars, cash and a Mercedes Benz from businessmen seeking favors, including developer Fred Daibes. Prosecutors charge that Menendez, 70, improperly sought to influence the outcome of a separate fraud indictment of Daibes in New Jersey.

Sellinger told jurors at Menendez’s trial in New York that he met with the senator in December 2020. Menendez started by asking about Sellinger’s vision for the US attorney’s office before making a more pointed comment about Daibes.

“Senator Menendez said he believed Mr. Daibes was being treated unfairly,” Sellinger said. “Senator Menendez said he hoped that if I was appointed US attorney that I would look at the case carefully.”

Sellinger said he told Menendez that if he got the job, he would treat all cases the same. He also said he would ask the Justice Department whether he should recuse himself from the matter because he had worked as a private attorney on a lawsuit involving Daibes.

Prosecutors say the meeting was one of several instances of Menendez corruptly using his power to help people who bribed him. Menendez is also accused of trying to influence the outcome of two criminal cases handled by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, of improperly trying to protect a business monopoly of an Egyptian American businessman and of acting as an agent of Egypt.

Prosecutors say Daibes gave cash, furniture and gold bars to Menendez to help him avoid prosecution. Sellinger was recused from overseeing the case, and Daibes eventually pleaded guilty in New Jersey in a deal that called for probation.

Menendez, a three-term senator, denies wrongdoing and has vowed to run for re-election in November as an independent. He stepped down as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after his indictment last year and has seen his political support collapse in New Jersey and among Democratic colleagues.

After the meeting, the senator withdrew his support of Sellinger’s nomination by President Joe Biden and backed another lawyer who he believed he could influence in the Daibes case, prosecutors say. But that lawyer’s candidacy fell through, and Menendez eventually backed Sellinger, who had raised money for the senator and socialized with him.

On cross-examination, Menendez lawyer Avi Weitzman asked Sellinger if in 20 years of friendship, the senator had ever asked him to do anything unethical.

“I never believed him to be asking me to do anything improper or unethical,” Sellinger said.

Weitzman will resume his questioning of Sellinger Thursday.

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