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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Businessperson tells jury he bribed Sen. Menéndez with a Mercedes-Benz



Wael Hana, a co-defendant of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), arrives for his trial at federal district court in Manhattan, June 7, 2024. Last Friday, Jose Uribe, a businessman who is cooperating with the authorities, testified that he had bribed Menendez. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Benjamin Weiser


Until recently, Jose Uribe was an obscure New Jersey businessperson who had been caught up in what prosecutors say was a sprawling and lucrative bribery scheme involving Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and others.


But after Uribe pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with authorities, he vaulted into a more prominent position: star government witness.


On Friday, minutes after taking the witness stand in Manhattan federal court, Uribe said he had bribed Menendez. He said he had given the senator’s wife, Nadine Menendez, a Mercedes-Benz in exchange for gaining “the power and influence” of the senator.


“When you bribed Robert Menendez, did you do that alone or with other people?” asked Lara Pomerantz, a prosecutor.


“With other people,” he responded.


Uribe, 57, said he had complained to Wael Hana, a longtime friend, about insurance fraud investigations in New Jersey that implicated Uribe’s businesses and family members.


Hana, who founded a company that prosecutors say was being used to funnel bribes to the senator and his wife, told him that — for a price — he had “a way to make these things go away.”


“He could go to Nadine, and Nadine would go to Sen. Menendez,” Uribe testified.


Menendez and his wife are charged with conspiring to take cash, gold bullion and other bribes collectively worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for the senator’s willingness to direct aid to Egypt and to meddle in criminal cases in New Jersey. One of those cases involved Uribe.


Uribe, a former insurance broker, testified that his goal was to enlist the senator’s help to “stop and kill” the insurance fraud investigation, which was being conducted by New Jersey’s attorney general. In return, Uribe said he agreed to buy Nadine Menendez, then the senator’s girlfriend, a new Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible worth more than $60,000.


Uribe told jurors that he was motivated by a deep concern for his son and a young woman who worked for him and was like a member of his family. Both, he said, had been approached by a detective who was investigating the fraud cases.


In nearly three hours of testimony, he began to explain the genesis of the bribery plot.


Uribe said he arranged a meeting at a New Jersey hotel with Hana and two men who had received subpoenas in connection with the insurance fraud investigation. Hana told them that in exchange for “$200,000 to $250,000” he could get a “resolution” that would “make these investigations stop and go away,” Uribe testified.


He said he expected Nadine Menendez to serve as a go-between. He also testified that he did not discuss the bribery scheme with Bob Menendez during three face-to-face encounters he said he had with the senator. Uribe’s testimony is to continue Monday.


While leaving the courthouse, the senator, who has strenuously maintained his innocence, suggested his lawyers’ cross-examination of Uribe would be revealing in its own way.


“Stay tuned. Stay tuned,” Menendez said, adding, “Wait for the cross and find the truth.”


Uribe’s testimony about the alleged deal focused primarily on his dealings with Hana and Nadine Menendez.


He testified that in July 2018, at Hana’s suggestion, he organized a fundraiser for Bob Menendez, who was running for reelection. Uribe said Hana told him it “would put us in a better standing” with the senator.


Uribe agreed. “I wanted to be in the good graces of the senator,” he told the jury, “because it was my best avenue at this point” to stop the investigations.


The event raised $50,000 — Uribe donated $5,000 — and he said he spoke briefly with Menendez and his wife.


He was with the senator again that night at an after-party, but Uribe said he did not broach the subject of the alleged deal with Menendez at either event.


Asked by Pomerantz how he felt about the status of the agreement then, Uribe said he believed the deal was underway and that the result would be good.


Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said outside after the proceedings ended for the day that Uribe’s “testimony so far — and as it will evolve — shows that there was no conspiratorial agreement.”


Menendez, 70, is being tried with Hana and another businessperson, Fred Daibes. Nadine Menendez, 57, was also charged, but the judge, Sidney H. Stein, postponed her trial until July because she is being treated for breast cancer. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty.


One of Menendez’s lawyers, Avi Weitzman, declined to comment after the court day ended, but in an opening statement last month, he said the senator’s defense team intended to show Uribe to be an untrustworthy witness.


“We’ll have a lot to discuss at the end of the case about him, about his lies and his cheating and his crimes and all the ways he’s been incentivized to continue doing all of them,” Weitzman said.


Uribe took the stand a day after the jury heard testimony from Gurbir S. Grewal. Grewal was New Jersey’s attorney general in 2019 when, prosecutors say, Menendez contacted him in hopes of having the investigations into Uribe’s associates quashed.


Grewal, who now leads the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division, testified Thursday about being summoned to Menendez’s office in Newark, New Jersey. Grewal said that when he asked if the senator had concerns related to a specific matter pending before his office, Menendez said yes. Grewal said he immediately cut the conversation short.


“I didn’t know the case. I didn’t want to know the case,” he testified, adding, “It’s not something I was comfortable speaking to him about.”


Earlier this week, prosecutors presented jurors with a chart summarizing 1,100 pieces of evidence, including scores of text messages, emails and voicemail messages. Messages that Uribe sent to Nadine Menendez and Hana showed that the insurance-fraud case appeared to be consuming Uribe.


“I need peace,” Uribe wrote in a text message to Nadine Menendez. The next morning, the senator placed a call to Grewal to arrange the meeting, according to prosecutors.


Uribe seemed to have advance knowledge of the meeting. “Thank you for everything you do for me. I am praying,” he wrote in a text message to Nadine Menendez a few minutes before the senator’s scheduled appointment with Grewal. “Today’s meeting is in GOD’s hand.”


One of the people involved in the fraud investigation pleaded guilty in April in an agreement that required no prison time, according to the indictment. It was around that time that Uribe provided Nadine Menendez with the car.


It was clear from text messages that Uribe sent in the fall of 2019 that at least some aspect of the fraud inquiry continued to vex him. In late October, Uribe asked Nadine Menendez if she had an “update” for him.


“I just need peace,” he wrote in a text message. “Sorry to bother you.”


On Oct. 29, the senator called Uribe from his Senate office, prosecutors have said.


The conversation lasted less than three minutes. Uribe sent a text message to Nadine Menendez after hanging up, telling her that he was “a very happy person.”


“I just got a call,” he wrote in a text to her, adding, “GOD bless you and him for ever.”

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