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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Prosecutors are trying to sell you a story, Menéndez lawyer tells jury

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) leaves after the first day of closing arguments in his corruption trial at Federal District Court in Manhattan, on Monday, July 8, 2024. Jurors have heard nearly two months of testimony in the case of Menendez, who is accused of bribery and corruption. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Benjamin Weiser, Nicholas Fandos, Tracey Tully and Maria Cramer

A lawyer for Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, in a fiery closing argument earlier this week at the senator’s trial on bribery charges, accused prosecutors of building a case that relied on half-truths, unsupported inferences, factual leaps and guesses.

“The gaps you are being asked to fill are not based on evidence,” the lawyer, Adam Fee, told the jury at the trial, which is in its ninth week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

“Don’t fall into a trap of buying a story — a forceful, well-told, long, long story,” Fee said. “Resist that.”

As a politician, Menendez, 70, has long been known for his pugnaciousness. When he was indicted in September, nearly every major Democrat in New Jersey called on him to resign. Instead, he dug in for a fight. Fee mirrored that aggressiveness in his closing arguments as he also tried to humanize Menendez before the jury. “Imagine this is what you have to sit and see being presented as the proof,” Fee said.

As Menendez left the courthouse, he was asked by reporters how he felt about the day’s proceedings. “Better, now that we’re presenting part of our defense,” he said in Spanish before stepping into a waiting black Lincoln sedan.

Fee’s presentation followed a vigorous closing argument lasting about five hours over two days by a federal prosecutor, Paul Monteleoni, who asked jurors to return a guilty verdict against Menendez and two businesspeople — Wael Hana and Fred Daibes — on trial with him.

“Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees,” Monteleoni told the jury Tuesday. “It all boils down to a classic case of corruption on a massive scale. This is about a politician who puts his power up for sale and the people who were willing to buy it from him.”

The senator is defending himself against charges that he and his wife, Nadine Menendez, 57, conspired to take bribes in exchange for political favors. Hana and Daibes have also been charged with participating in the conspiracy. Bob Menendez alone has been indicted on 16 counts, including bribery, honest services wire fraud, extortion, obstruction of justice, acting as an agent for Egypt and conspiracy.

Nadine Menendez was also charged in the case, but her trial has been postponed because she is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She has pleaded not guilty.

Over three lively hours Tuesday afternoon, Fee conceded that the gold bullion and piles of cash that the FBI found in a June 2022 search of the senator’s New Jersey home were unusual. “I’m sure it’s more gold and cash you have probably in your house,” Fee quipped.

But he argued that jurors were being asked to conclude that the valuables were bribes taken by the senator based on little more than circumstance and innuendo.

“Have they shown you evidence, a human being, a text message, an email, something you can rely upon, a reasonable credible inference that shows you something was given to the senator in exchange for an official act?” Fee asked.

He said prosecutors relied on “cherry-picked nonsense,” were “fudging” witness testimony and misleadingly portrayed Menendez as “Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold coins.”

Fee began his argument by pointing to what he portrayed as significant mistakes made by the government — an FBI agent who early in the case changed his testimony about where a navy blue blazer belonging to the senator hung in the couple’s bedroom, for instance — in an effort to undermine prosecutors’ broader credibility.

But he eventually offered the jury his own inferences about limited evidence, particularly related to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and gold bars that FBI agents found in the search of the Menendezes’ home.

Fee argued that the jury should conclude that most of the valuable items belonged not to Bob Menendez but Nadine Menendez. And he asserted that what prosecutors have called bribes from Daibes and Hana actually were freely given gifts.

“The evidence you’ve seen just in this case strongly supports the inference that Fred Daibes, because he was so generous, was giving Nadine stuff,” Fee said, adding that she had gone through a “tough divorce” and “lean times.”

Earlier in the day, Monteleoni completed his closing argument, seeking to weave pieces of evidence — emails, text messages, phone calls — in the web of alleged corruption charged by the government.

“One call standing in isolation, you can’t tell much from,” Monteleoni said. “But as you add more pieces of the puzzle and they fit together,” he added, “the picture becomes clearer and clearer, and it becomes unmistakable.”

Of the cash and gold found squirreled away in the Menendezes’ home, Monteleoni said, “Friends do not give friends envelopes stuffed with $10,000 in cash just out of friendship.”

Monteleoni also returned to a central pillar of the defense’s strategy throughout the trial, shifting blame to Nadine Menendez, and suggesting she and the senator lived largely separate lives. Bob Menendez’s lawyers, as early as in their opening statement in May, had sought to cast his wife as an opportunist in dire financial straits who kept her husband “in the dark” about what she was asking others to give her, and who “tried to get cash and assets any which way she could.”

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