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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A former close friend of Sen. Bob Menéndez testifies against him

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) speaks to reporters as he leaves Federal District Court in Manhattan, June 12, 2024. Philip Sellinger, the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, was called to the witness stand on Wednesday to testify in the bribery trial of Menendez, his onetime close friend, fundraiser and political ally. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Benjamin Weiser

Philip R. Sellinger, New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, testified Wednesday that he had several conversations with Sen. Bob Menendez about a bank fraud case Menendez is charged with trying to quash in exchange for bribes.

The case involved Fred Daibes, a real estate developer close to Menendez, D-N.J., who is on trial in Manhattan federal court, charged with being at the center of a yearslong bribery conspiracy.

The topic came up in December 2020, when Sellinger was being screened by Menendez for a prestigious job he had long sought and now holds: U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey.

The senator told Sellinger that he believed “Mr. Daibes was being treated unfairly” by the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey, and “hoped that if I became U.S. attorney that I would look at it carefully,” Sellinger testified in the fifth week of Menendez’s corruption trial.

The next day, Sellinger said he called the senator to explain that, if appointed U.S. attorney, he might be disqualified from involvement in Daibes’ case because of an unrelated lawsuit his firm had handled that was “adverse” to Daibes.

That was the last time the two men spoke about it.

Their decades-long friendship ended soon after, Sellinger testified.

Sellinger explained that when he asked the senator to speak at a ceremony marking his appointment as U.S. attorney, Menendez refused.

“He said, ‘I’m going to pass. The only thing worse than not having a relationship with the United States attorney is people thinking you have a relationship with the United States attorney — and you don’t,’” Sellinger testified.

Presidents, in selecting U.S. attorneys and federal judges, traditionally defer to their party’s senior senator in a state — in this case, Menendez.

The senator, 70, is accused in a federal indictment of trying to steer Sellinger into the U.S. attorney’s job and pressuring him to go easy on Daibes, who prosecutors say rewarded Menendez handsomely with gold and cash.

It is one aspect of what prosecutors describe as a vast international conspiracy in which Menendez is accused of dispensing political favors in exchange for bribes. In earlier testimony, jurors heard from Jose Uribe, a disgraced New Jersey businessperson, who said he gave Nadine Menendez, the senator’s wife, a Mercedes-Benz in return for the senator’s help to “stop and kill” an insurance fraud investigation.

The episode involving Sellinger is another instance in which, prosecutors say, Bob Menendez meddled in a criminal investigation in New Jersey on behalf of a friend who was funneling him bribes.

But perhaps no allegation against the senator cuts to the heart of the criminal justice system as directly as the accusation that he tried to install and then influence a friendly U.S. attorney who would assume responsibility over Daibes’ prosecution.

Sellinger said that the December 2020 conversation was not the first time Menendez had advocated on behalf of Daibes before the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office. He testified that the senator told him he had complained to a previous U.S. attorney about Daibes’ case and was left “unhappy with the discussion.”

Sellinger told the jury that when Menendez raised the issue of Daibes’ case, “I told the senator that any cases that came before me as United States attorney I would look at carefully.” He said that was the end of the conversation.

During cross-examination by Avi Weitzman, a lawyer for Menendez, Sellinger made clear that the senator had never requested that he take any improper action.

“I never believed him to be asking me to do anything unethical or improper,” Sellinger testified.

Sellinger and Menendez have a long shared history in New Jersey.

The senator and Sellinger golfed, dined and sometimes traveled together. Sellinger donated generously to the senator’s campaigns and held frequent fundraisers for Menendez. In October 2020, when Menendez and Nadine Menendez married, Sellinger was among a group of just a few dozen wedding guests. (Daibes, Sellinger testified, was there, too.)

A month later, after Joe Biden was elected president, Sellinger was at the top of Menendez’s shortlist to be recommended to the White House for nomination as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor.

But prosecutors have said that Menendez also tried to extract a commitment from Sellinger to act favorably in the case involving Daibes, who in 2018 was charged in a 14-count federal indictment in New Jersey with scheming to defraud a bank he had founded.

Daibes pleaded guilty in April 2022 to a single count of making false entries in connection with a $1.8 million loan document as part of an agreement that required no prison time. A judge rejected that plea agreement in October, scuttling the original deal altogether; the case is still pending.

In the bribery case, Menendez is being tried with Daibes and another businessperson, Wael Hana. Prosecutors say both men were pivotal in funneling bribes to the senator and Nadine Menendez, 57.

Her trial had been postponed until July because she is being treated for breast cancer; late Wednesday, the judge, Sidney H. Stein, said he had delayed it again, until at least Aug. 5, while he awaits additional information from her doctors about her prognosis and her ability to assist in her defense.

All four defendants have pleaded not guilty.

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