Sen. Bob Menendez’s defense claims prosecutors failed to prove any charges

Sen. Bob Menendez’s defense claims prosecutors failed to prove any charges

A lawyer for Sen. Bob Menendez on Tuesday urged jurors to acquit him of every charge at the Democrat’s New York City corruption trial, asserting that federal prosecutors had failed to prove a single count beyond a reasonable doubt.

The attorney, Adam Fee, addressed the Manhattan federal court jury, emphasizing that there were significant gaps in the evidence presented by prosecutors. He argued that these gaps required jurors to make assumptions to conclude that crimes were committed or that Menendez accepted any bribes.

“The absence of evidence should be held against the prosecution,” Fee stated. “There’s zero evidence of him saying or suggesting that he was doing something for a bribe.”

Fee also defended the over $100,000 in gold bars and more than $480,000 in cash found in an Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, home during a 2022 FBI raid. He acknowledged that the presence of such valuables was “provocative” and “atypical” but insisted, “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.”

“This is a case with a lot of inferences,” Fee continued, suggesting that the evidence presented was unsupported by emails, texts, or other concrete proof.

After the jury was dismissed for the day, Fee informed Judge Sidney H. Stein that he was about halfway through his five-hour closing argument, which would resume Wednesday morning. Following Fee’s closing, arguments from two other defense lawyers would be presented before prosecutors offer a rebuttal. The jury is expected to begin deliberations on Thursday.

Earlier on Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Monteleoni, in his closing statement that began Monday, accused the senator of engaging in “wildly abnormal” behavior in response to bribes. Monteleoni claimed Menendez attempted to interfere in criminal cases managed by top state and federal prosecutors in New Jersey.

Menendez, 70, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he accepted bribes, including gold and envelopes of cash, from 2018 to 2022 from three New Jersey businessmen seeking his assistance in their business ventures. His trial entered its ninth week on Monday.

Menendez is on trial alongside two of the businessmen, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes. Hana, who prosecutors allege enlisted Menendez to help him secure and protect a monopoly on the certification of meat exported from the U.S. to Egypt, and Daibes, a prominent real estate developer, have both pleaded not guilty. A third businessman, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty and testified at the trial.

In their closing arguments, prosecutors directly targeted the New Jersey senator, asserting that Menendez sold his office to enrich himself by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Monteleoni dismissed defense attempts to portray Menendez as unaware of his then-girlfriend, Nadine Arslanian’s, efforts to solicit cash or favors from the businessmen. Arslanian became Menendez’s wife in fall 2020. Fee argued that she went to great lengths to conceal her financial troubles, including her inability to pay for her home, from Menendez.

To illustrate Menendez’s control over the bribery schemes, Monteleoni referenced testimony about a small bell the senator allegedly used to summon his wife one day when he was outside with one of the businessmen and wanted her to bring him paper. The bell, Monteleoni argued, “showed you he was the one in charge, not a puppet having his strings pulled by someone he summons with a bell.”

Nadine Menendez, 57, is also charged in the case, but her trial has been postponed while she recovers from breast cancer surgery.

Menendez has resisted calls for his resignation, even from some prominent Democrats, though he relinquished his powerful position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the charges were announced last fall. Several weeks ago, Menendez filed to run for reelection this year as an independent.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez said he chose not to testify at his New York trial because he believes prosecutors failed to prove “every aspect” of the bribery case against him. This decision cleared the way for closing arguments as early as Monday. Lawyers for the Democrat rested their case after calling several witnesses over two days to counter seven weeks of testimony and hundreds of exhibits and communications introduced by Manhattan federal prosecutors.

Menendez maintains he is not guilty of charges that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold and cash from 2018 through 2022 in exchange for using his Senate influence to deliver favors benefiting three New Jersey businessmen. Judge Sidney H. Stein asked Menendez to confirm that the decision not to testify was his alone. Menendez affirmed that after extensive discussions with his lawyers, he decided against taking the stand.

As he left the courthouse, Menendez told reporters, “From my perspective, the government has failed to prove every aspect of its case.” He added that taking the witness stand would “simply not make any sense to me whatsoever.”

“I expect my lawyers will produce a powerful and convincing summation, deduce how the evidence came out, and where they failed across the board, and how the jury will render a verdict of not guilty,” Menendez said before wishing reporters a “Happy Fourth of July.”

Two of the businessmen he is accused of accepting bribes from, Fred Daibes and Wael Hana, are on trial with him. A third, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty to charges and testified against the trio during the trial. Daibes and Hana have also pleaded not guilty and were given an opportunity to present a defense, though the judge reminded jurors that the burden is on prosecutors and a defense is not required. Lawyers for Daibes rested at the same time as Menendez without presenting a defense. Hana’s lawyers began presenting their case by calling one of Hana’s employees as a witness.

Prosecutors took seven weeks to present their case before resting last Friday. They offered evidence to show that Menendez’s wife, Nadine Menendez, served as a go-between most times to connect the senator and the businessmen. Nadine Menendez, who began dating the senator in 2018, has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges, but her trial has been postponed as she recovers from breast cancer surgery.

Lawyers for Bob Menendez have argued that his wife hid her financial troubles from him, including an inability to afford mortgage payments on her Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, home, along with many of her dealings with the businessmen. They’ve also said she inherited gold found in her bedroom during a 2022 FBI raid on their home.

An FBI agent testified earlier in the trial that he ordered the seizure of more than $486,000 in cash and over $100,000 in gold bars during the raid because he suspected that a crime may have taken place. Among witnesses called by Menendez’s lawyers was his sister, Caridad Gonzalez, 80, who told the jury that members of her family routinely stored large amounts of cash at their homes after Menendez’s parents fled Cuba in 1951 with only the money they had hidden in the secret compartment of a grandfather clock.

“It’s normal. It’s a Cuban thing,” she said. Bob Menendez was born after the family arrived in Manhattan.

Menendez has pleaded not guilty to bribery, fraud, extortion, obstruction of justice, and acting as a foreign agent of Egypt. After the charges were announced in September, he was forced out of his powerful post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has resisted calls to resign from the Senate and a month ago filed papers to run for reelection as an independent.

Prosecutors allege that Daibes delivered gold bars and cash to Menendez and his wife to get the senator’s help with a multimillion-dollar deal with a Qatari investment fund, prompting Menendez to act in ways favorable to Qatar’s government. They also say Menendez did things benefiting Egyptian officials in exchange for bribes from Hana as the businessman secured a valuable deal with the Egyptian government to certify that imported meat met Islamic dietary requirements.

A previous corruption prosecution of Menendez on unrelated charges ended with a deadlocked jury in 2017.

Source: AP, NBC New York

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