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Jurors see gold bars in Bob Menendez bribery trial

Breaking down the charges facing Bob Menendez
Breaking down the charges against Sen. Bob Menendez 02:49

An FBI agent who led the search of Sen. Bob Menendez's home, in which federal investigators discovered more than a dozen gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, testified Thursday in the New Jersey Democrat's corruption trial. 

Prosecutors showed jurors two one-kilogram gold bars and several $100 bills that were confiscated from the home Menendez shares with his wife, Nadine, in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. 

Investigators found more than $480,000 in cash stashed in envelopes, jacket pockets and shoes, as well as 13 gold bars worth more than $100,000 when executing a search warrant on June 16, 2022, according to prosecutors. They also discovered nearly $80,000 in his wife's safe deposit box at a nearby bank.  

Photo from the unsealed indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez, accused of accepting bribes including gold bars.  DOJ

Prosecutors assert the gold bars and cash were bribes from the businessmen that were given to Menendez and his wife in exchange for political favors. 

But Menendez's lawyer, Avi Weitzman, said Wednesday the cash can be explained by Menendez withdrawing hundreds of dollars each month from his bank account and stockpiling it at home because of his parents' experience as Cuban immigrants. He sought to challenge prosecutors' claims that the cash was from the other defendants, saying some of the bills were not even in circulation anymore.  

As for the gold bars, Weitzman said Menendez believed they were from his wife's family. The gold bars were found in her locked closet, to which the senator did not have a key, according to Weitzman. He claimed owning gold bars was a cultural norm for Nadine Menendez, who was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents. 

The indictment says that on Oct. 17, 2021, Bob Menendez and his wife returned from Egypt, and a driver for Diabes picked them up and drove them home. It then says of the senator, that "[t]he next day, Menendez performed a web search for 'how much is one kilo of gold worth.'"

Jurors also heard opening statements for Menendez's co-defendants, Wael Hana, owner of the halal meat company IS EG Halal, and Fred Daibes, a real estate developer. All three have pleaded not guilty. A third New Jersey businessman who was indicted, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty in March and confessed to buying Menendez's wife a $60,000 Mercedes convertible to influence the senator. He is cooperating with the prosecution, agreeing to testify in the case. 

Defense lawyer Lawrence Lustberg, arguing on Hana's behalf, accused prosecutors of "criminalizing friendships." He portrayed Hana as assumed by the government to be guilty by association with Daibes and Uribe. 

Referencing several dinners including Hana, Nadine and Bob Menendez and Egyptian officials, Lustberg said that while the government has tried to paint the relationship between Hana and the couple as a conspiracy — accusing Hana of trying to tempt the senator to commit official acts on behalf of a foreign country during these dinners — Lustberg described the dinners as advocating for one's native country through elected officials.

Wednesday's proceedings consisted of opening statements, as the defense and prosecution offered very different portraits of the Democratic senator. Menendez, who is being tried separately from his wife, Nadine Menendez, stands accused of trading his influence and power to foreign governments and three New Jersey businessmen in a complex bribery scheme that allegedly spanned from 2018 to 2023.

"Public servants are expected to serve the public," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz on Wednesday. "He was powerful. He was also corrupt. For years, Robert Menendez betrayed the people he was supposed to serve by taking bribes. And what was his price? Gold bars. Envelopes stuffed with cash. Checks for a bogus job for his wife. A Mercedes-Benz convertible." 

Weitzman tried to distance his client from Nadine Menendez, saying the two live mostly separately lives. Nadine Menendez is expected to be a key player in the senator's trial. 

Menendez is being tried alongside two of the businessmen — Hana, owner of the halal meat company IS EG Halal, and Daibes, a real estate developer. All three have pleaded not guilty. Uribe pleaded guilty in March and confessed to buying Menendez's wife a $60,000 Mercedes convertible to influence the senator. 

The judge in the case determined earlier this week that a psychiatrist who evaluated Menendez will not be allowed to testify about "two significant traumatic events" in the senator's life that his lawyers claim explains why investigators found hundreds of thousands in cash in his home. 

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