Menendez’s Bribery Trial Puts Scrutiny on His Motives and His Marriage

It had been a busy Thursday for Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

He was in Washington presiding over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as it heard testimony about the need for sustained aid to Ukraine, and then preparing to travel to Philadelphia with his wife, Nadine Menendez, to accept an award from an Armenian-American organization.

Back at home, the F.B.I. was watching.

An agent, conducting surveillance near the couple’s modest, split-level house in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., snapped a photo of a Mercedes-Benz convertible parked out front, a court filing shows. Several weeks later, investigators searching the home would find 13 bars of gold bullion and more than $480,000 in cash, much of it stashed in coat jackets, boots and a safe.

On Monday, almost two years to the day after that agent was watching the senator’s house, Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, is to go on trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan, charged with taking part in an elaborate, yearslong bribery scheme.

It will be his second corruption trial in seven years, but unlike the first, which ended in a hung jury, there is a volatile and surprising new element: charges against Mr. Menendez’s wife.

The case, prosecutors have indicated, is as much about Ms. Menendez as it is about her husband. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York has depicted Mr. Menendez and his wife as collaborators who took bribes in exchange for the senator’s willingness to steer weapons and government aid to Egypt, prop up a friend’s halal meat monopoly and meddle in criminal investigations involving allies.

“What else can the love of my life do for you?” Ms. Menendez asked at a Washington steakhouse dinner during one of the many meetings that prosecutors say she arranged between her husband and Egyptian officials.

Together, prosecutors contend, the couple were entangled in corrupt schemes that began even before their marriage in October 2020. The bribes, which also included a diamond ring and home furnishings, helped Mr. and Ms. Menendez live above their lawful means, prosecutors say.

But that partnership may now be fracturing, as the senator’s lawyers appear to be preparing a defense that pins much of the blame on his wife.

Ms. Menendez was to have been on trial with her husband this week, but a judge postponed her trial until July after her lawyers said she had a “serious medical condition” that required surgery and a potentially prolonged period of recovery.

Although she will not be at the defense table, she is expected to loom uncomfortably over the proceedings. By the government’s telling, Ms. Menendez, 57, was an essential cog in a wheel of corruption. She served as a conduit for bribes and as a go-between who relayed messages in emails and texts, sometimes using what she and her husband called her “007” phone.

The senator’s lawyers have said in legal papers that Mr. Menendez may, if he testifies, say he was duped by the woman he married less than four years ago, that she “withheld information” and that she “led him to believe that nothing unlawful was taking place.”

Such a tactic presents challenges, given the couple’s public persona as loyal partners who traveled and attended events together, said Tatiana R. Martins, a former chief of the Southern District’s public corruption unit who is now in private practice.

Ms. Martins said the senator’s lawyers might argue that his wife “did this all on her own; he had no idea; she kept it from him,” but prosecutors could seek to rebut that by introducing evidence of how close the two were and how they shared everything.

“They have this great relationship, yet she’s keeping all this from him?” Ms. Martins said.

As for Ms. Menendez, even if her husband’s strategy is to try to shift blame, such testimony would almost certainly be inadmissible at her trial, said Jonathan Kravis, a defense lawyer in Washington and former trial attorney with the Justice Department’s public integrity section.

The postponement of Ms. Menendez’s trial will also give her and her lawyers a preview of the full scope of the government’s case and enable them to make strategic adjustments as needed, he said.

“This is obviously not how the government wants to do it,” Mr. Kravis said. But, he added, the separate trials were “not a death blow, for either case, by any means.”

Mr. Menendez will be tried alongside two New Jersey businessmen, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, who were also charged in the bribery conspiracy. All three have pleaded not guilty, as has Ms. Menendez.

Mr. Menendez, who is near the end of his third full term, has consistently maintained his innocence and has left open the possibility of running for re-election in November. On the Senate floor in January, he attacked the Southern District prosecutors, saying they were engaged “not in a prosecution but a persecution” and were seeking “victory, not justice.”

The charges, disclosed in a September indictment, shook Washington and prompted even Mr. Menendez’s most stalwart Democratic allies to call for his resignation. The brazen nature of the charges has also fueled a backlash against so-called machine politics in New Jersey, which has, in turn, significantly increased the challenges his son, Representative Robert Menendez, faces as he seeks a second House term.

The trial is expected to delve into issues of political intrigue at home and abroad at a moment of heightened scrutiny over legislative self-dealing. Two weeks ago, Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, and his wife were charged with taking bribes from companies controlled by the government of Azerbaijan, intensifying interest in the role played by foreign agents.

Mr. Menendez’s lawyers have argued in court that by charging the senator, who has represented New Jersey in Congress since 1993, prosecutors are seeking to criminalize routine legislative actions. In one filing, the lawyers said “the government’s apparent zeal to ‘get back’ at Senator Menendez for defeating its prior prosecution has overwhelmed its sound judgment.”

The senator’s lawyers have also asked the judge, Sidney H. Stein, to allow them to present the jury with the testimony of a psychiatrist, Karen B. Rosenbaum, who has examined the senator. She has concluded, they said, that “fear of scarcity” stemming from Mr. Menendez’s father’s death by suicide and his parents’ history as Cuban refugees led to a “longstanding coping mechanism of routinely withdrawing and storing cash in his home” — a theory that defense lawyers will presumably use to explain the money seized by investigators.

In summarizing the psychiatrist’s findings, the senator’s lawyers also disclosed that Mr. Menendez’s father, a compulsive gambler, died after Mr. Menendez stopped paying off his gambling debts, contributing to what they called “intergenerational trauma.”

Federal prosecutors oppose allowing Dr. Rosenbaum’s testimony, questioning the scientific basis for her conclusions and arguing that the defense is trying to “engender sympathy” from the jury improperly.

The senator’s trial will also pull back the curtain on the spending habits of a couple who hopscotched around the world with congressional delegations, attended state dinners at the White House and entertained often.

In one legal filing, prosecutors noted Mr. Menendez’s preference for “luxury items such as Bombay Sapphire gin, cigars and upscale meals.”

The detail prompted a tart response from the senator’s lawyers, who noted that Bombay sells for $23.99 at Target.

“Hardly a top-shelf liquor, nothing about Bombay Sapphire gin smells of excess or is beyond Senator Menendez’s financial abilities as a lifetime public servant,” they wrote.

Judge Stein ruled this month that he would permit the introduction of the evidence, saying it was “inextricably intertwined with the evidence of the charged crimes.”

The indictment is filled with references to money, and to its absence.

Ms. Menendez, who divorced her first husband in 2005, was unemployed when she began dating Mr. Menendez in early 2018. Ten months later, she was involved in a fatal pedestrian motor vehicle accident that left her without a car, a need that prosecutors say led to one of the first bribes, the Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Jose Uribe, a former insurance broker charged with the senator in the alleged conspiracy, has pleaded guilty. He admitted in court in March that he had given Ms. Menendez the $60,000 convertible in return for the senator’s help in trying to disrupt an insurance fraud investigation in New Jersey.

“I knew that giving a car in return for influencing a United States senator to stop a criminal investigation was wrong, and I deeply regret my actions,” Mr. Uribe told Judge Stein.

When Ms. Menendez nearly lost her home to foreclosure in 2019, Mr. Hana used his halal meat certification company to pay $23,569 to erase her mortgage debt and he and Mr. Uribe continued to “facilitate the payments,” prosecutors say.

Ms. Menendez and her first husband bought the house, built in 1960, when their two children were young. The plan was to tear it down and rebuild, according to two former close friends. Instead, over time, the small house with faded white paint began to appear run-down and out of place in a neighborhood of knockdowns replaced by mansions with three-car garages and conspicuous stone facades.

After the senator moved in, in 2020, messages relayed on cellphones seized by investigators and included in court filings showed Ms. Menendez beckoning handymen to the house to trim trees, lay carpet, deliver a power washer and repair the garage door.

In an interview with the F.B.I., one person said he had given Ms. Menendez a lawn mower, but when the senator learned of it, “he became angry” and told her that “she had to pay.”

But by 2022, after the couple’s house was searched, they were working together to try to cover their tracks, prosecutors said.

Mr. Menendez wrote his wife a check for the amount Mr. Hana had paid toward the mortgage, adding a handwritten memo indicating it was “to liquidate loan,” prosecutors said. She then reimbursed Mr. Hana, through his lawyer, noting it was “full payment of Wael Hana loan,” according to the indictment.

The Menendezes also refunded the car payments.

The money, prosecutors said, was not a loan, but a bribe payment — “as Menendez and Nadine Menendez well knew.”

In March, prosecutors announced a new charge against the Menendezes: obstruction of justice.

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