Sen. Menendez's defense says focus on gold belies lack of bribery evidence

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez arrives at Federal Court, for his bribery trial in New York

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Bob Menendez's defense lawyer on Tuesday said prosecutors at the senator's corruption trial focused on "provocative" images of cash and gold bars found at the home the New Jersey Democrat shared with his wife because they lacked evidence of bribery.

In the first portion of his closing argument after an eight-week trial, defense lawyer Adam Fee said Menendez regularly withdrew cash from banks and stored it at home, a practice learned from his parents, who fled Cuba with cash stored in a clock.

Fee said authorities who searched the home found the gold in the closet of the senator's wife Nadine Menendez. The defense has tried to shift blame to her, arguing the two lived largely separate lives and she kept him in the dark about her finances.

"The prosecutors have not come close to meeting their burden to show you that any of the gold or cash was given to Senator Menendez as a bribe," Fee said.

Jurors saw and handled the gold bars during in the trial.

"The prosecutors feature the cash, they feature the's provocative, it's atypical, I'm sure it's more gold and cash than you probably have in your house," he said.

Menendez was charged last year with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes in exchange for helping Egypt secure billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance and aiding the business and legal interests of businessmen who bribed him.

Menendez, 70, pleaded not guilty to 16 criminal charges including bribery, fraud, acting as a foreign agent and obstruction.

The corruption trial is Bob Menendez's second. A bribery case against him in New Jersey ended in a mistrial in 2017.

Regardless of the current trial's outcome, the case has likely ended Bob Menendez's Senate career.

The three-term senator resigned as chair of the Senate's influential foreign relations committee after being charged in September. He has filed to run for re-election to his seat in November as an independent, but is considered a long shot.


In the current case, federal prosecutors in Manhattan say Menendez sought to pressure prosecutors to lay off investigations into Fred Daibes and Jose Uribe, two businessmen who had bribed him.

They also said that after Wael Hana, a businessman with ties to Egyptian officials, put Nadine Menendez on his payroll for a "sham job," Bob Menendez pressed a Department of Agriculture official to stop scrutinizing a halal certification monopoly that Egypt's government had granted to Hana.

Menendez also ghostwrote a letter for Egyptian officials to respond to human rights concerns, prosecutors said.

At the end of his closing argument on Tuesday, prosecutor Paul Monteleoni said that by blaming his wife, Menendez was "trying desperately to pass the buck to the people closest to him."

Nadine Menendez has also pleaded not guilty but has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and will be tried in August.

Uribe pleaded guilty to bribery for buying Nadine Menendez a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz, and testified against Bob Menendez. Hana and Daibes have pleaded not guilty to corruption charges.

In his argument on Tuesday, Fee also portrayed his client's actions as normal legislative activity.

"Everything Bob did that is a subject of these allegations was absolutely the right thing for a senator to do," Fee said. "He did not take one single action because of any sort of a bribe."

Fee is expected to resume his closing argument on Wednesday. Lawyers for Hana and Daibes will then give their closing arguments.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)