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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘It’s a Cuban thing’: Menéndez’s sister says their parents also hid cash

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) arrives at the federal courthouse in Manhattan on Monday, July 1, 2024. Menendez’s sister testified on Monday about their parents’ journey from Cuba and the family’s practice of storing cash at home, offering justification for a habit he has said explains at least some of the roughly $480,000 F.B.I. agents seized during a search of his New Jersey home. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Benjamin Weiser

Sen. Bob Menendez’s sister testified earlier this week about their parents’ journey from Cuba and the family’s practice of storing cash at home, offering justification for a habit the senator has said explains at least some of the roughly $480,000 FBI agents seized during a search of his New Jersey home.

The sister, Caridad Gonzalez, was 8 years old when her family fled Cuba in 1951, three years before Menendez was born in New York City. She told jurors that their father, a tie manufacturer, stored money in a false bottom of a grandfather clock in their home in Havana.

“It’s a Cuban thing,” Gonzalez, who is in her 80s, testified. “They were afraid of losing what they worked so hard for.”

She explained that her parents and her aunt continued the practice after arriving in the United States, where her father worked as both a carpenter and a clothing manufacturer.

Her mother, a seamstress, stored money in the door frame of a closet; her father kept cash in a shoe box that he stored on a shelf in a closet. After a fire at their aunt’s home, relatives discovered $60,000 in a bag in the basement, Gonzalez testified.

It was a habit, she said, that Menendez, 70, adopted after hearing tales of a visit by Cuban police officers who pressured their father to shut down a manufacturing facility he had operated in the back of their home.

“Daddy always said, ‘Don’t trust the banks. If you trust the banks, you never know what can happen,’ ” Gonzalez said.

When she was working as Menendez’s legal secretary in the 1980s, Gonzalez said her brother once asked her to retrieve $500 in cash he kept stored in a box in his family’s apartment in Union City, New Jersey.

Gonzalez was the first witness called Monday as the senator’s lawyers began to present a defense against charges that Menendez accepted gold bars, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and a Mercedes-Benz in exchange for political favors.

In a June 2022 search of the home where Menendez lives with his wife, Nadine Menendez, FBI agents found 13 gold bars and more than $480,000 in cash, much of it stuffed in boots, coat pockets and a duffel bag or locked in a safe.

The second defense witness, Katia Tabourian, Nadine Menendez’s younger sister, described the bedroom closet where FBI agents discovered the gold bars. She said the door was kept locked, but said she had seen it open roughly 10 times and offered jurors details about the valuables inside, including family heirlooms.

Nadine Menendez kept the closet locked because years ago her children’s nanny had stolen cash from the family, Tabourian said.

She said their grandmother had given Nadine Menendez gold bars, and jurors were shown a handwritten list of valuables signed by their father decades ago that included descriptions of gold and precious jewels.

“My sister got my grandmother’s gold bars,” Tabourian said. “My sister was my grandmother’s favorite.”

Bob Menendez’s lawyers, in an effort to shift blame to Nadine Menendez, have painted a picture of a couple who lived largely separate lives. They have emphasized that all of the gold discovered was found in Nadine Menendez’s closet and claimed in an opening statement that the senator was unaware of “what she was asking others to give her.”

On cross-examination, Tabourian was questioned about whether Bob Menendez was asked to leave the couple’s room when her sister opened the closet to get dressed — an effort by a prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, to challenge the notion that he would have had no knowledge of its contents.

The gold bars found in the closet were stamped with serial numbers traced to gold owned by two New Jersey businesspeople, Fred Daibes and Wael Hana, who are accused of funneling bribes to the couple in exchange for political favors and are on trial with the senator. Nadine Menendez was also charged, but the judge, Sidney H. Stein, postponed her trial because she is being treated for breast cancer. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The defense’s presentation before the jury comes as the trial enters its eighth week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Bob Menendez is defending himself against charges that he and his wife conspired to take bribes in return for steering aid and weapons to Egypt and meddling in several criminal investigations in New Jersey on behalf of his allies.

The testimony from Gonzalez and Tabourian offered Bob Menendez’s lawyers the opportunity to present the jury with the kind of personal history of the senator that might otherwise have been available only through the senator’s own testimony, were he to take the stand.

Bob Menendez’s lawyers have not indicated whether he will testify in his own defense; one lawyer, Adam Fee, told the judge Monday that it was “still under consideration.”

On Monday afternoon, Russell Richardson, a forensic accountant who analyzed Bob Menendez’s cash banking withdrawals, testified that the senator took out roughly $400, about twice a month, between 2008 and 2022. During that time, those withdrawals totaled more than $150,000, Richardson said.

Much of the cash the FBI seized was found bundled in $10,000 stacks.

Richardson, in cross-examination by a prosecutor, Catherine Ghosh, said there were no $10,000 withdrawals in the records he analyzed.

The senator’s lawyers and prosecutors, in courtroom debates outside the jury’s presence, have differed on just how much of the senator’s family history may be described for the jury.

For example, Bob Menendez’s defense team wanted to call a psychiatrist to testify that the loss of the family’s life savings when leaving Cuba and his father’s death by suicide led to the senator’s habit of stockpiling cash at home. The senator’s father, a compulsive gambler, died after Bob Menendez “eventually decided to discontinue paying off his father’s gambling debts,” his lawyers wrote in a filing.

The judge barred the psychiatrist from being called as a witness, but Gonzalez’s testimony was able to offer jurors a window into their family’s traditions. She was not asked about their father’s death.

Part of Bob Menendez’s defense rests on showing that during the early months of the alleged bribery conspiracy, the senator and his future wife had broken up and were therefore unlikely to have been colluding.

“At the time they are supposed to be acting together to get the senator to betray his country, he is breaking up with her,” Fee said last week.

Tabourian said her sister contacted her on Election Day in November 2018, upset that she and Bob Menendez had broken up. Her sister asked her to help broker a resolution.

“My sister was in a previous relationship, an unhealthy relationship, and that was creating a lot of chaos in her relationship with the senator,” Tabourian testified.

After Tabourian sent Bob Menendez a text message, he responded in an email that was shown to jurors.

The senator wrote that he could not “get over her being” with her former boyfriend “while she was with me.”

“Maybe time will heal wounds but not today,” he wrote. “Wish it was different.”

By early 2019, the couple had reunited. They were engaged later that year and married in October 2020.

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