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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Star Menéndez witness is questioned about ‘his lies and his cheating’

Jose Uribe leaves federal court in Manhattan on Friday, June 7, 2024. Uribe, a New Jersey businessman, pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government in its corruption case against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Benjamin Weiser

Jose Uribe, a star government witness with a checkered past, was on the stand Tuesday for a third day at Sen. Bob Menendez’s bribery trial as the focus of the proceeding shifted toward a series of face-to-face meetings that Uribe had with the senator.

Uribe, who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Menendez with a Mercedes-Benz, was expected to face additional cross-examination later Tuesday afternoon by the senator’s defense lawyers about at least one element that was missing from his direct testimony: any discussion with the senator of a payoff.

“I never talked to Mr. Menendez about making payments for the car,” Uribe said in Manhattan federal court Monday.

Uribe’s testimony did reveal two private meetings with the senator that were not mentioned in a federal indictment against Menendez.

And his firsthand account as a witness goes to the heart of the government’s case against Menendez, a once-powerful Democrat who is in his fifth week of trial. He is charged with accepting cash, gold and the Mercedes-Benz in exchange for meddling in criminal investigations, steering aid to Egypt and propping up a friend’s halal meat certification monopoly.

Nadine Menendez, the senator’s wife, and two New Jersey businesspeople, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, are also charged in the bribery conspiracy. All four have pleaded not guilty.

Uribe, 57, told jurors that he was invited to Nadine Menendez’s home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where he spoke with the senator alone for roughly an hour on the eve of a Sept. 6, 2019, meeting that the senator held with a former New Jersey attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal.

Uribe and the senator poured drinks from a bottle of Grand Marnier brandy that Uribe had brought as a gift. The senator smoked a cigar, and they discussed an insurance fraud investigation that Uribe testified he wanted Menendez’s help in quashing.

Before Uribe left, the senator shook a small bell to summon Nadine Menendez from inside the house; she brought out a piece of paper, and Uribe said he was instructed to write down the names of the two businesses and the two associates who were targets of the attorney general’s fraud investigation.

The senator folded the paper and slipped it into his pocket, Uribe testified.

At noon the next day, the senator met with Grewal, who told jurors last week that during the brief sit-down at the senator’s office in Newark, New Jersey, he flatly refused Menendez’s overture to discuss a specific case.

Less than three hours later, however, Uribe said he was told by Nadine Menendez to meet the senator at his apartment building in New Jersey. The men spoke briefly in the lobby, and the senator offered Uribe reassurance.

“That thing that you asked me about — it doesn’t seem to be anything there,” Uribe testified the senator told him.

On Tuesday morning, a lawyer for Hana, Ricardo Solano Jr., tried to paint Uribe as a habitual liar, eliciting hours of vague replies and a frequent incantation: “I don’t have a recollection.”

Did Uribe recall making inquiries about buying a house or an email exchange related to the mortgage terms? “I do not have a recollection of the text, even though I’m looking at it right now,” he told Solano.

The judge, Sidney H. Stein, denied a request by Hana’s lawyers to introduce evidence about Uribe’s missed child support payments, visits to strip clubs and credit card debt from 2010 that appeared designed to present him as less of a family man than his direct testimony suggested.

In denying the request, Stein, alluding to Uribe’s criminal history, noted, “You’ve just got so much to work with.”

When Uribe admitted in March that he had tried to bribe the senator with a luxury car, it was the second time he had pleaded guilty to participating in criminal activity.

In 2011, Uribe, an insurance broker, admitted taking $76,000 in insurance premiums but failing to buy coverage for seven clients, all commercial drivers. He was sentenced in New Jersey to probation and stripped of his insurance broker’s license.

He testified that he had continued to run an insurance broker’s office, in violation of his 2011 guilty plea. He also told jurors that he had failed for years to pay business taxes, lied about being married on his personal income tax forms and fraudulently obtained two loans to purchase trucking equipment.

In an opening statement last month, one of the senator’s lawyers, Avi Weitzman, said of Uribe, “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.”

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