Defense witnesses in Sen. Bob Menendez’s bribery trial to begin testimony

Washington — In the eighth week of his bribery trial, lawyers for Sen. Bob Menendez are expected to begin calling witnesses after the prosecution rested its case last week following testimony from 30 witnesses. 

The New Jersey Democrat and his wife, Nadine Menendez — both who have pleaded not guilty — are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold and other bribes in exchange for political favors. 

Menendez’s lawyers indicated last week that the senator’s sister and his wife’s sister would be among the first witnesses to testify on his behalf. 

It’s unclear if Menendez or the two businessmen on trial with him will testify in their own defense. The businessmen, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, have also pleaded not guilty. 

Nadine Menendez’s trial was postponed until later this summer while she recovers from breast cancer surgery. 

Throughout the last seven weeks, the senator’s lawyers have sought to undermine the credibility of government witnesses, trying to sow doubt about how much Menendez knew about what prosecutors say was a sprawling scheme that began in 2018. 

Menendez is accused of using his influence as the then-chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee to secretly benefit Egypt; pressuring a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to protect a halal certification monopoly Egypt granted to Hana; and interfering in criminal cases in New Jersey involving Daibes and another businessman Jose Uribe. 

Uribe, a former insurance broker, pleaded guilty to trying to bribe the senator and was the government’s star witness, testifying that he bought a Mercedes-Benz convertible for Menendez’s wife in exchange for the senator’s “power and influence” to stop investigations related to his business associates. 

Uribe told jurors that he had several conversations with Menendez about the investigations, but they never discussed the car or how it was paid for. He said he assumed the senator’s wife had kept him informed of the deal. 

Prosecutors have alleged the senator used his wife as a go-between for the bribes. 

But Menendez’s lawyers have insisted that Nadine Menendez kept him in the dark about her activities, telling jurors that he had no key to her locked closet where gold bars and some of the cash was found in their Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, home during an FBI search in June 2022. Menendez, who moved into his wife’s longtime home, was also unaware that she was struggling financially, according to his lawyers.

Prosecutors asserted that it’s inaccurate to portray the senator and his wife as living separate lives, introducing evidence that showed Menendez regularly checked in on her location using the “Find My Friends” iPhone app, as well as text messages about Nadine Menendez running errands for the senator and doing laundry. 

After jurors were dismissed for the day on Thursday, prosecutors and defense lawyers argued to the judge about whether details from Nadine Menendez’s relationship with an ex-boyfriend could be used in court. 

The senator’s lawyers said the relationship was abusive and making jurors aware of that would provide context to some of the evidence they’ve already seen. But the judge said he would limit what they can hear. 

“There can be some evidence that there was an issue with a boyfriend concerning physical safety,” U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Stein told lawyers, adding “this is not going to turn into a soap opera.” Stein indicated he would allow Menendez’s attorneys to establish there was an ex-boyfriend and Nadine Menendez “was concerned about the ex-boyfriend, that was the reason they got this phone,” the one that Sen. Menendez was using to check on her location.

In May, Stein ruled that a psychiatrist who evaluated Menendez would not be allowed to testify about “two significant traumatic events” in his life that his lawyers say explain the hundreds of thousands in cash investigators found in his home. Stein said he would allow limited testimony from a certified public accountant about the senator’s financial records. 

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