‘That was gross’: Former New Jersey AG says Menendez tried to meddle in ally’s case

New Jersey’s top prosecutor and a high-ranking deputy had just finished a 2019 meeting with US Sen. Bob Menendez in the Democrat’s Newark office.

After a quiet elevator ride down to their car, Andrew Bruck turned to his boss, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, and broke the silence.

“Whoa,” Bruck said, “that was gross.”

The unnerving exchange with Menendez, Grewal testified in federal court Thursday, was his second such conversation with the senator, who is being tried on charges that he engaged in a bribery scheme and acted as a foreign agent for the Egyptian government. Like in a previous exchange, months earlier, Menendez told Grewal he was concerned over the treatment of Hispanic defendants – a worry, the senator said on both occasions, tied to a specific, ongoing case being handled by the attorney general’s office of insurance.

Grewal, who left office in 2021, told the court that the initial call had caught him off-guard. He had no personal relationship with the senator, who called him on his private line after obtaining the number through Grewal’s cousin. After some small talk, Grewal said, Menendez pivoted to the matter he would bring up again in his office – with no one present but him and the two visitors – on September 6, 2019.

On both occasions, Grewal testified, he told Menendez that the defense lawyer in the case, Michael Critchley, should be the one to raise any issues – and that if he did, they should be directed not to him but to the prosecution team or judge.

Menendez, in Grewal’s opinion, seemed surprised that Bruck had come along for the in-person meeting. Once inside, seated at a small circular conference table at the front of Menendez’s sprawling, high-windowed office, the senator again pressed Grewal on the treatment of Hispanic defendants. Grewal said Menendez then, once again, brought up the case of Elvis Parra, who had been indicted on insurance fraud charges. Parra was an associate of businessman Jose Uribe, who was indicted as part of the bribery scheme before striking a plea deal with federal prosecutors earlier this year.

Grewal testified that Menendez never explicitly identified the case or defendants by name in either interaction, only telling Grewal it involved Hispanic truckers prosecuted by the insurance fraud division in the attorney general’s office.

“I didn’t know the case. I didn’t want to know the case,” Grewal said, telling the court he still does not know the details of the case Menendez was discussing.

The meeting ended shortly thereafter, lasting about 15 minutes. Menendez had retreated to small talk, Grewal said, after the attorney general again refused to engage on the specifics.

“There wasn’t an explicit ask,” Grewal told the court, but he had become concerned that Menendez was trying to meddle with the case. He did not tell any of his rank-and-file attorneys about their exchanges.

“Insulating the team from any type of pressure or interference from the outside” was an important part of his job, Grewal said, telling the court he believed spreading word of Menendez’s interest risked creating “a chilling effect” around the case.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez leaves federal court in New York City on June 6, 2024. - Larry Neumeister/AP
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez leaves federal court in New York City on June 6, 2024. - Larry Neumeister/AP

Menendez’s lawyers disputed that notion, repeatedly asking Grewal if their client had in any way threatened or sought to intimidate him.

His answer, over and over again, was no. The pressure, Grewal said, was baked into their conversations from the start.

Menendez “was a close political ally of the governor’s, so that was my concern, sort of being on his bad side,” Grewal testified.

Grewal is the government’s 14th witness in a trial that is already in its fourth week, as prosecutors try to prove Menendez, two co-defendants and the senator’s wife, Nadine, engaged in a global bribery scheme that delivered the Menendezes gold bars, blocks of cash and a new Mercedes in exchange for the senator using his post and power to influence public officials to benefit his associates.

“Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take,” Lara Pomerantz, an assistant US attorney, told the jury in her opening remarks. “Motivated by greed, focused on how much money he could put in his own pocket and his wife’s pocket.”

The senator’s team has insisted that he committed no crimes and, to the extent that there had been any unsavory business dealings, Nadine Menendez was the driving force. Nadine’s trial was separated and pushed back to this summer. The senator disclosed last month that she has breast cancer.

In testimony a day earlier, an FBI agent combed through a massive trove of communications among the alleged conspirators, including text message exchanges focused on the Parra case.

In January 2019, Nadine, who was Menendez’s girlfriend at the time, asked Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman and one of the co-defendants, to tell her “what the charges are.” (Lawyers for Hana and developer Fred Daibes, the third alleged co-conspirator, declined to cross-examine Grewal.)

“The matter only involves four counts,” Hana replied, and is “a relatively small indictment.” A few minutes later, Nadine called the senator.

Uribe is expected to testify Friday.

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