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Just a Week in, Bob Menendez Trial Is Already a Strange Affair

A juror’s fear of heights, clothes full of cash, and a big cancer reveal – this is better than reality TV.

by | May 20, 2024 | Articles, Good Reads, Law, Opinion

Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is one week into his second corruption trial in a decade. The senator managed to avoid conviction in his previous case, but this time the situation seems more dire. Menendez faces 18 criminal counts, and he isn’t alone. Two businessmen with ties to foreign governments and the senator’s wife, Nadine, have also been indicted. All four pleaded not guilty, but another associate pleaded guilty and is working with the prosecution.

Friday, May 17, marked the end of the first week in the federal corruption trial expected to last into July, yet just that first week delivered more drama and quirkiness than is often seen in the entire trial process. Whether this case results in prison time for the politician or not, it does seem likely his career in government is coming to an end. If this first week is any indication, however, the trial promises to provide hours of entertainment no matter the outcome.

Jury Selection

Jury selection in the Menendez trial began Monday, May 13, and dozens of potential jurors sought to be excused. That’s not uncommon, of course – most folks don’t actually want to carry out jury duty – but some of the alleged reasons were bizarre. Judge Sidney Stein warned the pool of about 150 potential jurors that the trial could stretch into the first week of July before asking which people had reasons they couldn’t serve. Dozens of hands were raised, and each person hoping to be excused was questioned in private by Judge Stein and two members of both the prosecution and defense teams.

Among the excuses were the standard fare, of course: work scheduling conflicts, family obligations, and an inability to be fair for a variety of reasons. But some were downright interesting. One potential juror told the judge she’s a housing attorney who gets “worked up” when she hears about public corruption. She called the case “triggering.” Another said she couldn’t participate because Bruce Springsteen is performing in Spain. Judge Stein pointed out that Springsteen had recently announced new tour dates stateside. “You could catch him, probably in Giants Stadium” he told her. One man explained that he couldn’t serve on the jury because he has an extreme fear of heights, and the courtroom is on the 23rd floor with windows overlooking the city.

Twelve jurors and six alternatives were finally sworn in, though, on Wednesday. Half the jury ended up being men while the other six are women. They hail from Manhattan, the Bronx, or Westchester County, and several have advanced degrees.

Cash, Cars, and Gold Bars … and Halal Butchery?

Mr. and Mrs. Menendez stand accused of participating in a years-long scheme to trade bribes including cash, cars, and gold bars for political influence in the Senate. When federal agents raided the Menendez residence in June of 2022, they found a 2019 Mercedes C-Class, at least 13 gold bars worth more than $150,000, and nearly half a million dollars in cash. All of this, prosecutors say, represents the fruits of their misdeeds.

The cash was stored in some of the oddest places. Prosecutors say that about $4,300 was found in envelops in one of the senator’s jackets – and thousands more in another jacket. An envelope containing $7,500 was found in one boot, with another $7,000 found in a boot from another pair. The prosecution showed the jury photos of these cash deposits, as well as the gold bars. A few of the gold bars were brought out in court and passed around so that each juror could feel their weight.

GettyImages-2152449699 Bob Menendez

Bob Menendez (Photo by Andrea Renault/Star Max/GC Images)

On Friday, however, the trial took a turn away from Menendez to one of the other defendants, Wael Hana, a New Jersey businessman originally from Egypt who allegedly bribed the senator in return for a variety of uncouth favors. According to the prosecution, Menendez worked to steer weapons and aid to Egypt and updated unnamed officials in the country on the progress, organizing deals through Hana.

Friday morning, James Bret Tate, a foreign service officer who had been stationed at the US Embassy in Egypt in 2019, spent hours describing to jurors halal meat slaughterhouses and the USDA’s role in the global import-export market. According to Tate, the government of Egypt gave Mr. Hana’s business, IS EG Halal, a monopoly on certifying that meat imported to the country had been prepared in compliance with Islamic law. Prior to this, four US companies had handled the certification. The change – which the USDA opposed, and which Menendez allegedly helped create in return for bribes – resulted in an increase in the cost of meat certification – from $400 to $5,000 – hand made Mr. Hana quite wealthy in the process.

Blame Mrs. Menendez – Only Don’t

On Wednesday, Sen. Menendez’s lawyer insisted in court that his client hadn’t known anything about the gold bars hidden in his home. The politician’s “dazzling, tall” wife had stashed the treasures without his knowledge, apparently. Prosecutors claim the senator took the gold, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and a Mercedes convertible as payment to use his influence in Congress to help the three businessmen involved in the case and the governments of Qatar and Egypt. But his defense attorney claims the senator was “sidelined” by his wife, who “had these relationships long before she met Bob.”

“Where were the gold bars found? The gold bars were found in a locked closet. It is Nadine’s closet,” Avi Weitzman, the senator’s attorney, said during his opening statement. Despite Bob’s jackets being stuffed with envelopes of cash, Weitzman claimed, “the senator did not know the gold bars were there.”

So, blame Nadine, not Bob, because he had no idea.

Only don’t. Don’t blame her, because this “beautiful, tall, international woman,” as Weitzman described her, has a Lebanese family who collects gold – and the bars weren’t bribes after all, but inheritance. “It’s cultural,” Weitzman told jurors. “They like to give gold and other precious metals as gifts.”

“The evidence will show that Nadine’s family had a lot of gold,” the senator’s lawyer said. What he did not explain, however, is why the bars in the closet had serial numbers the prosecution says can be tracked back to Fred Daibes, another co-defendant who is accused of bribing the couple.

Then, the very next day after Weitzman attempted to shift the blame from his client onto Mrs. Menendez, the family announced that Nadine had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, which is why her trial had been put off until July. A day after that, Bob Menendez lashed out at reporters outside his home, saying: “Don’t be such a bloodsucker! She has cancer.”

What More May Come

Today marks the opening of the second week of the Menendez trial. Over the next days and weeks, jurors will hear more about the alleged bribes, including more testimony from prosecution witness James Bret Tate. Mrs. Menendez will also face trial this summer, and the senator himself may even take the stand.

On the political side, it seems the senator’s career may well be over regardless of how the trial turns out. He announced in March that he wouldn’t be running for re-election as a Democrat – though he did leave open the option of running an independent campaign. In light of the scandal of this case and without the support of the Democratic Party, it seems unlikely that would pan out well for the beleaguered senator. Whatever else may come in or out of the trial, however, surpassing the sheer entertainment value of last week’s shenanigans would be an impressive feat.

Read More From James Fite

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