Federal corruption trial of Sen. Menendez on track to begin next week

Sen. Bob Menendez will be allowed to argue at his federal corruption trial that he thought he was acting for the “good of the public” when helping Egypt and Qatar, while prosecutors will be able to present evidence to the jury that they allege shows the lawmaker and his wife took bribes in a scheme involving the foreign governments to fund their lavish lifestyle.

Judge Sidney Stein set those general perimeters at a hearing Monday in federal court in New York, where he outlined how he wants the high-profile trial to run.

The trial of Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is expected to begin with jury selection next Monday. Menendez will face a jury alongside two New Jersey businessmen who are co-defendants. His wife, Nadine, also has been charged but will be tried separately.

Another co-defendant, businessman Jose Uribe, has pleaded guilty to charges related to the bribery scheme and cooperated with federal prosecutors.

Menendez is one of several current and former members of Congress – including former Rep. George Santos and Rep. Henry Cuellar – facing federal charges and will be a test of how jurors weigh evidence of elected officials accused of a crime.

The trial is scheduled to last several weeks, as prosecutors try to prove that Menendez and the businessmen Wael Hana and Fred Daibes engaged in a wide-ranging corruption scheme to help the Egyptian and Qatari governments in exchange for lucrative bribes. All three men have pleaded not guilty.

Stein, a Clinton appointee, ruled on what sorts of arguments he would allow to be presented to a jury. It’s unclear what defense strategies Menendez will chose to adopt.

The judge made clear that he would not allow the trial to spill into infighting between attorneys or veer into political commentary.

Prosecutors, for their part, will be allowed to show the jury evidence that Menendez and his wife allegedly used the money from their scheme to live lavishly. Nadine Menendez also has pleaded not guilty.

“Mr. Menendez’s desire for the car, the gold, the watches go to his motive – the lifestyle,” Stein ruled, adding that the prosecutors still should not plan to show “hundreds of photographs of assets.”

Among the arguments that Stein barred was any effort by Menendez’s attorneys to cross-examine FBI agents on whether the senator was affirmatively warned by investigators that the Egyptian government wanted to use him as an agent. The judge said that such questioning might “lead the jury to believe” that the government “had an obligation to warn” the senator, which they did not.

While the senator will be able to argue “whatever he did was good for the public,” and that other lawmakers have held meetings with foreign intelligence officials on trips abroad, the judge said he cannot use how other lawmakers operate as a reason why he believed that his actions weren’t criminal.

Stein still must deal with a number of issues before the trial commences next week, including whether Menendez can call a psychiatrist to testify that his habit of stashing gold bars and wads of cash in his home is rooted in the trauma of his father’s suicide and his family’s history of property confiscated in Cuba.

Prosecutors want to bar the testimony, saying the psychiatrist’s finding on the senator’s mental state “does not appear to be the product of any reliable scientific principle or method” and that Menendez is trying to get “sympathy” from the jurors.

The judge hasn’t yet decided what sorts of questions defense attorneys and prosecutors will be allowed to ask prospective New York jurors. The defense has proposed asking: “Do you have any opinions about people from New Jersey in general?” and “Do you think that because they are from New Jersey, they are more likely to break the law?”

Among the questions prosecutors have proposed is “Do any of you have strong feelings regarding whether the United States Department of Justice should or should not pursue charges against elected officials?”

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