Menendez jurors see the gold bars at the heart of a bribery case

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), arrives at Federal Court, for his bribery trial in connection with an alleged corrupt relationship with three New Jersey businessmen, in New York City, U.S., May 16, 2024. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

NEW YORK — With the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., underway Thursday, a prosecutor handed a juror in the first row of the jury box a plastic bag containing an object at the heart of the government’s case: a gold bar that glinted under the courtroom lights.

One by one, jurors held the bag, turning it over in their hands and feeling its weight before passing it to their neighbor — the jury’s first tangible exposure to evidence prosecutors say was a bribe paid to Menendez, 70, and his wife.

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Prosecutor Lara Pomerantz soon handed jurors another bag containing several gold bars. But before she could hand over a third, the judge, Sidney H. Stein, said the jury “has gotten a feel for the weight of gold.”

Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, have been charged with accepting gifts collectively worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including gold, cash and a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible, in exchange for the senator’s dispensing of political favors to the governments of Egypt and Qatar and to three New Jersey businesspeople.

The senator and two of the businesspeople — Wael Hana and Fred Daibes — are being tried together in Manhattan federal court. Nadine Menendez, 57, was to be tried with them, but her trial was postponed after her lawyers said she had a “serious medical condition.”

Thursday, the senator revealed that Nadine Menendez was being treated for breast cancer and was preparing to undergo a mastectomy and possible radiation treatment.

The third businessperson charged in the case, Jose Uribe, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify as a prosecution witness at the trial.

Thursday morning, lawyers for the senator’s co-defendants, in their opening statements, portrayed their clients as friends of the couple whose innocent acts of generosity were being unfairly cast by prosecutors as criminal.

“It’s about criminalizing friendships,” said Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg. Daibes’ lawyer, César de Castro, said his client had not given anything to the Menendezes to influence them or have the senator engage in any official act on anyone’s behalf.

The presentation of the gold bars came as an FBI special agent, Aristotelis Kougemitros, the government’s first witness, testified about the gold and cash seized during a June 2022 search of the Menendezes’ home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Kougemitros, who led the search team, said investigators seized $486,461 in cash, 11 1-ounce gold bars and two 1-kilogram bars.

The cross-examination was in line with the defense strategy of suggesting Nadine Menendez had secrets the senator was not privy to.

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