At NJ Sen. Bob Menendez’s trial, jury gets a closer look at $486K in gold bars and cash

An FBI agent on Thursday gave jurors an exhaustive account of the June 2022 raid on Sen. Bob Menendez’s home, describing how he uncovered so much cash that he had to call for more agents and two cash-counting machines for help.

“We were originally told not to seize cash, but to photograph serial numbers,” testified Aristolelis Kousemitros, the FBI special agent who led the search. “But then I saw so much cash, I thought it was evidence of a crime and decided to seize it.”

Kousemitros was the first witness called to testify in the bribery and corruption trial of Menendez and two businessmen charged in the scheme. The senator’s wife, Nadine Menendez, will have a separate trial because of health complications. She is currently under treatment for breast cancer, the senator disclosed Thursday. Prosecutors allege she acted as a go-between for her husband and the businessmen, arranging the bribes and trading on his influence.

Federal prosecutor Lara Pomerantz painstakingly, and sometimes tediously, walked the agent through each discovery from the couple’s modest home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. The $486,461 in cash and gold bars stood in stark contrast to the cluttered split-level ranch house with 1980s-era furnishings.

Pomerantz broadcast photos of the money and gold bars on television screens in the courtroom, as Kousemitros described finding the cash stuffed into shopping bags, a duffel, a safe, in the pockets of four jackets belonging to the senator and stuffed into two pairs of boots.

But by late in the afternoon, defense attorney Adam Fee, representing Bob Menendez, began his cross-examination — laying the groundwork for part of their strategy. He said the cash and gold bars found in a bedroom closet belonged to Nadine Menendez, and that the senator never went into that closet.

The prosecutor had shown photos of the closet, and Kousemitros noted it had both men’s and women’s clothing. There was a blue jacket with the senator’s handwritten notes about a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting in the pocket, and a row of ties hung on the inside of the closet door.

But Fee grilled Kousemitros, zooming into the closet photo to reveal that the blue suit jacket might have actually been hanging on the bedroom door, outside the closet. He also challenged whether the ties belonged to Bob Menendez, suggesting instead that cartoonish ties with a mouse eating cheese or skulls might be more appropriate for Nadine Menendez’s once-young son.

Prosecutors laid some groundwork of their own. In the opening statement from Bob Menendez’s defense team, the attorneys suggested the cash he squirreled away in his home has serial numbers and printing dates that go back to the 1980s. But Pomerantz zeroed in on four bundles of cash that had paper bands around them with a bank logo. Each one was stamped with a date from April 2022, he showed in the photos.

On his cross-examination, Fee took issue with those dates, too. He asked Kousemitros to zoom in and read the dates again. One of them was stamped April 31, 2022. But that month only has 30 days.

Fee’s cross-examination will continue on Friday.

The morning began with opening statements by the lawyers for Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, the two New Jersey businessmen who are also charged in the case. Hana is accused of bribing the Menendez couple in exchange for helping Egyptian military and intelligence officials convince the U.S. to release a hold on weapons sales. Prosecutors also say that Bob Menendez helped him secure a monopoly on the halal meat-certification of exports to Egypt, then Hana used the proceeds from the business to fund the bribes.

Hana’s attorney, Lawrence Lustberg, told the jury that nothing Hana did was against the law, and that he is merely a hardworking Egyptian immigrant who befriended Nadine Menendez because she originally came from Lebanon.

“Will and Nadine were friends, initially because she spoke Arabic,” Lustberg said. “They cared about each other, they spent time together and yes, they gave each other gifts. As friends do.”

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