Senator Menendez’s lawyer asks jurors to refrain from speculation when considering corruption charges • New Jersey Monitor
Senator Menendez’s lawyer asks jurors to refrain from speculation when considering corruption charges • New Jersey Monitor

Federal prosecutors trying Senator Bob Menendez on corruption charges have repeatedly assured jurors they could “infer” that the cash, gold bars and other wealth investigators linked to the three businessmen were bribes the men paid to New Jersey’s highest-ranking senator for favors.

But Menendez’s attorney, Adam Fee, told jurors Wednesday that the “excruciatingly thin” evidence presented by “overzealous” prosecutors instead required them to rely on speculation and “a jumble of ever-shifting conclusions” to believe that the senator, a Democrat, accepted bribes to interfere in domestic criminal cases and act in the interests of foreign officials.

“This is not a boxing match. This is not a political debate. You don’t choose story A or story B. You don’t follow what makes more sense to you about a story that’s being told to you. Your oath obligates you to follow the law,” Fee said. “Prosecutors have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bob performed official acts in exchange for bribes. They did not do that.”

Fee opened a full day of closing arguments for the defense in Manhattan federal court, where he and two lawyers for co-defendants Wael Hana and Fred Daibes implored the jury to acquit all three men.

They called the prosecution’s star witness, Jose Uribe, a liar, reminding jurors that Uribe – their co-defendant who testified against them as part of a cooperation agreement – had admitted to being a liar on the witness stand on several days. A convicted insurance fraudster, Uribe recounted more than a decade of deception, testifying that he lied to stay in the insurance industry, lied to protect his family and, in this case, lied to prosecutors before deciding to plead guilty.

Fee picked apart the testimony of Uribe and several other prosecution witnesses one by one and told the jury to dump them on a “witness trash heap.”

Don’t assume the worst, even if the government keeps telling you to.

– Defense attorney Lawrence Lustberg

Defense attorneys also repeated a popular refrain they used throughout the nine-week trial: that Menendez’s wife, Nadine, hid her financial problems and subsequent schemes from the senator because she did not want to risk losing him again after a brief separation early in their relationship. Uribe testified that he bought Nadine a $67,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible in 2019 as a bribe so the senator would pressure the New Jersey attorney general’s office to “stall and stop” an investigation that threatened his own business.

“Nadine and Jose kept their agreement secret from Bob,” Fee said. “This is the opposite of evidence that shows Bob was involved in a conspiracy. This is the opposite of evidence that shows Bob was conspiring with Jose Uribe. This is not evidence of a conspiracy. In fact, the opposite is the case. He was not aware of the agreement.”

Lawrence Lustberg, representing Hana, told jurors that Hana did not deny giving the couple valuable items, including $23,000 for mortgage payments, seven gold bars valued at nearly $13,000, an air purifier and an elliptical machine. He also did not deny attending meetings and dinners with Egyptian officials at Menendez’s invitation.

But the federal anti-bribery law requires corrupt intent, and prosecutors failed to prove that, he argued. Instead, he added, they implied guilt by association and made generosity into evil.

“The government’s argument requires you to always, always assume the worst,” Lustberg said. “The government requires you, over and over again, to commit innocent acts that prosecutors here twist into something sinister in order to make up for the lack of real evidence and convince you that this is all a crime.”

He added: “Don’t assume the worst, even if the government keeps telling you to.”

Lustberg told jurors that Hana, an Egyptian-American, secured a monopoly on exporting halal beef to Egypt because of his relationships with Egyptian authorities – not because of anything Menendez did. The monopoly is not up to anyone in the United States to decide, he added.

“It was entirely Egypt’s decision,” he said.

He also took issue with prosecutors who called Hana’s deal a monopoly, saying instead that Egypt opted for a “single certifier” to ensure uniform standards after concerns about the way previous U.S. certifiers stunned and slaughtered cows.

He insisted that Hana’s discussions with Menendez about military aid and sales to Egypt and other matters were merely his advocacy for his homeland.

Fee repeated that statement, saying that meeting with foreign politicians and issuing press releases on issues in other countries is a routine part of the senator’s job as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Egypt, he reminded jurors, is a U.S. ally.

“It’s not like having a diplomatic conversation with Egypt is the same as talking to Darth Vader,” Fee said.

César de Castro, representing Daibes, reiterated Lustberg’s argument that the valuables associated with Daibes that prosecutors received were gifts to foster friendship and goodwill, not bribes.

“What you saw here is a case constructed using reverse engineering. It was based on deductions. They found money that they linked to Mr. Daibes. But they didn’t know what it was for and they want you to think it was a bribe,” de Castro said. “They want you to make the same mistake they made.”

Daibes and Menendez had been friends for 40 years, he added.

“Friends look out for each other. You don’t bribe a close friend,” said de Castro.

De Castro had not yet finished his plea on Wednesday evening. On Thursday, he will first make his closing argument, followed by the prosecution’s rebuttal. Judge Sidney H. Stein is expected to brief the jury on Thursday afternoon, with deliberations to begin in the late afternoon or Friday morning.

As Menendez left the courtroom late Wednesday afternoon, he told reporters: “We have stripped the government of its misrepresentations and exposed its lies.”

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By Seren