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Prosecution in Menendez trial closes by calling defense ‘preposterous’

NEW YORK — Sen. Bob Menendez’s litany of explanations for why a stockpile of cash and gold bars were in his house when it was raided by the FBI defy logic, the prosecution said Tuesday, particularly the veteran lawmaker’s “preposterous” assertion that he didn’t know the piles of money and other treasures were in his bedroom closet because his wife kept its door locked.

The government’s closing argument as Menendez’s two-month corruption trial nears an end reminded jurors of all they had seen and heard in testimony: the incriminating text messages, origins of all that cash and the value of the brick-sized ingots, as well as Menendez’s effort to handpick a New Jersey federal prosecutor who he believed would derail a friend’s 2018 indictment for bank fraud.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Monteleoni scoffed at the idea that Menendez’s wife, Nadine, secretly hoarded thousands of dollars she collected without his knowledge, saying “he obviously had access to the closet in his own bedroom.”

“Throughout this trial, you heard that everyone was to blame but Menendez,” Monteleoni said in his five hours of closing argument.

Menendez, 70, is charged with 16 felony counts, including bribery, extortion and acting as a foreign agent. The government alleges that he benefited from a wide-ranging conspiracy during which he offered favors and influence in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts. The case has tarnished his lengthy political career; a conviction could carry a significant prison term and a ban on him ever again holding public office.

The New Jersey Democrat was previously indicted on unrelated federal corruption charges in 2017, a case that was not retried after the jury deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared.

A search warrant executed in June 2022 at Menendez’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J., home yielded the trove of evidence used against him and two co-defendants at this trial. Agents found more than $480,000 in cash, some of which was in envelopes inside the lawmaker’s jackets. At the time, he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in that role he had dealings with foreign governments that prosecutors say he began to exploit. (He was removed as chairman after being indicted.)

“Friends do not give friends envelopes stuffed with $10,000 in cash, just out of friendship. Friends do not give those same friends kilogram bars of gold worth $60,000 each out of the goodness of their hearts,” Monteleoni said Tuesday.

The Menendezes allegedly accepted a Mercedes-Benz convertible and a $23,000 payment to cover a mortgage debt, with gifts rolling in before and after their October 2020 nuptials. Nadine Menendez is charged in the conspiracy but will be tried at a later date. She has been undergoing treatments for breast cancer during her husband’s trial.

Wael “Will” Hana, an Egyptian native living in New Jersey, is a co-defendant who allegedly served as liaison between the couple and Egyptian officials. Hana, a longtime friend of Nadine Menendez’s, is accused of giving her a salary for a no- or low-show job through a Halal meat-certification company in exchange for her husband taking meetings and advancing policy priorities as directed by Egyptian military and intelligence leaders.

The senator is also accused of working to have Philip Sellinger appointed as U.S. attorney in New Jersey, which he ultimately was, on the expectation that he could get the prosecutor to kill a probe into real estate developer Fred Daibes. “Menendez tried to shut down the investigation, just as he was paid to do,” Monteleoni said.

That plan did not pan out, jurors heard, because Menendez could not control Sellinger, and the prosecutor was recused from the case upon taking office.

Daibes is the final co-defendant in the current trial, and prosecutors allege that Menendez, at his behest, issued positive statements and promised to advance a resolution before the Foreign Relations Committee praising Qatar for its efforts to evacuate people from Afghanistan after the U.S. military withdrawal. At the time, Daibes was seeking a multimillion-dollar investment from a member of Qatar’s royal family, prosecutors said.

All three men pleaded not guilty. Businessman Jose Uribe, charged with bribing the senator, pleaded guilty in March and testified for the government. He told jurors that Menendez asked him for details about a criminal case Uribe wanted the senator to “stop and kill” after he began financing the luxury convertible for the lawmaker’s then-girlfriend.

Monteleoni said a mountain of compelling evidence overshadowed the tales offered by the defense. He characterized Menendez as a once-trusted elected official who was so entrenched in his corruption that he agreed to help Egypt and Qatar in exchange for gifts and money.

“What your common sense tells you is the cash and gold was part of a corrupt quid pro quo,” the prosecutor argued.

Menendez’s attorney, Adam Fee, attacked an FBI agent’s testimony that the senator’s jacket was in the bedroom closet with the stash of gold and cash, when it actually was elsewhere in the house. The agent corrected himself a day after being confronted about the detail on cross-examination.

The evidence in the case was “not overwhelming” but “cherry-picked nonsense,” Fee said as he began his closing arguments late Tuesday. He criticized prosecutors for telling a “false story” of wanton bribes and called his client’s actions “lawful, normal and good for his constituents in this country.”

If Menendez kept cash in his home, it’s because “everyone in his family was basically hoarding cash” after being targeted and ransacked by authorities in Cuba before they fled for the United States in the 1950s, Fee said. While born after that in New York, Menendez still emulated his parents’ example, he said.

“They want you to conclude that every dollar must have been a bribe,” Fee said of the government. But he insisted, “There is no text, no email, no photo that shows Senator Menendez taking a bribe — because there is none!”

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