Sen. Bob Menendez 'put his power up for sale,' prosecutor claims in bribery trial

Menendez has pleaded not guilty to 16 federal counts.

ByAaron Katersky ABCNews logo
Wednesday, May 15, 2024 10:16PM
NJ senator 'put his power up for sale,' prosecutor claims in trial
Darla Miles has the latest from Lower Manhattan.

NEW YORK -- At the opening of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez's trial, a prosecutor pointed the finger at him, calling the Democrat corrupt and telling a federal jury in New York on Wednesday that he traded his power in return for bribes of gold bars, cash and a car. Later, Menendez's lawyer called prosecutors "dead wrong."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz said the 70-year-old New Jersey politician delivered favors for three New Jersey businessmen since 2018. And she also put his wife, Nadine Menendez, at the center of the crimes, saying the scheme started in 2018 when he and his wife-to-be had begun dating.

Pomerantz said the senator was careful not to send too many written communications involving the bribery scheme and used his wife to communicate.

"He was careful not to send too many texts," she said, adding he had Nadine Menendez do it for him. "He used Nadine as his go between to deliver messages to and from the people paying bribes."

Nadine Menendez is charged in the case, but her trial has been delayed until at least July because of a medical condition that requires surgery. She has pleaded not guilty.

Sen. Bob Menendez, right, sits with his defense team during jury selection, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Manhattan federal court in New York.
Sen. Bob Menendez, right, sits with his defense team during jury selection, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Manhattan federal court in New York.
(Candace E. Eaton via AP)

The three-term New Jersey senator also has insisted since his fall arrest that he's not guilty of bribery, fraud, extortion, obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent of Egypt. He has said his interactions with the governments of Egypt and Qatar were proper and not illegal.

When his lawyer, Avi Weitzman, delivered his opening statement, he called Menendez "an American patriot" and prosecutors "dead wrong."

He said Menendez "took no bribes and did not accept any cash, or gold, or a car."

Weitzman added: "He was never and is not a foreign agent of the government of Egypt. He did not violate the law period."

Pomerantz, though, said the businessmen showered Menendez and his wife with gifts to ensure Menendez would help them and evidence will show that the fingerprints and DNA of one of his codefendants was on cash found in his home.

This image provided by the U.S. Attorney's office shows two of the gold bars found during a search by federal agents of Sen. Bob Menendez's home and safe deposit box.
This image provided by the U.S. Attorney's office shows two of the gold bars found during a search by federal agents of Sen. Bob Menendez's home and safe deposit box.
U.S. Attorney's Office via AP

Menendez is on trial with two of the businessmen. A third has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the other defendants.

For the senator, the trial represents the second time he has been criminally charged in a federal court in the last decade.

In 2017, a federal jury deadlocked on corruption charges brought in New Jersey, and prosecutors did not seek to retry him.

Those charges were unrelated to the current prosecution of Menendez, who held the powerful post of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he was forced from the job after the new charges were revealed last fall.

Menendez is on trial with Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer, and businessman Wael Hana. They too have pleaded not guilty.

IMAGE: Sen. Bob Menendez arrives for opening statements in federal corruption trial on May 15, 2024.
IMAGE: Sen. Bob Menendez arrives for opening statements in federal corruption trial on May 15, 2024.

An indictment alleges Daibes delivered gold bars and cash to Menendez and his wife to get the senator to help him secure a multimillion-dollar deal with a Qatari investment fund by acting in ways favorable to Qatar's government.

The indictment also said Menendez did things benefitting Egyptian officials in exchange for bribes from Hana as the businessman secured a lucrative deal with the Egyptian government to certify that imported meat met Islamic dietary requirements.

Menendez has said he will not be seeking reelection on the Democratic ticket this fall, although he has not ruled out running as an independent.