Openings expected Wednesday in Menendez corruption trial

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NEW YORK (AP) — Opening statements were expected to occur Wednesday in the New York corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez after the jury selection process is completed in the morning, a federal judge said Tuesday.

Judge Sidney H. Stein also made rulings that will define what evidence lawyers can present to the jury. He said he expected to have a jury in place by mid-morning, clearing the way for openings and the presentation of evidence after jury selection stretches into a third day.

Among the evidence he excluded with his rulings was the testimony of a psychiatrist who was expected to say that Menendez habitually stored cash in his home as a “fear of scarcity” response to family stories about how their savings were confiscated in the Communist revolution in Cuba, before he was born, and because of financial problems stemming from the gambling problem of his father, a struggling carpenter.

FBI agents who searched the senator’s New Jersey home in 2022 found a stash of gold bars, worth more than $100,000, and more than $486,000 in cash, some of it stuffed into the pockets of clothing hanging in his closets.

Prosecutors say the gold bars and cash were bribes from three wealthy businessmen in his home state who he performed a variety of favors for in return, including meddling in criminal investigations and taking actions benefitting the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

He is on trial with two of the businessmen. A third has pleaded guilty in a cooperation deal and is expected to testify against the senator. Menendez's wife, also charged in the case, is scheduled for trial in July.

The trial defendants, along with Menendez's wife, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they used Menendez’s power as a senator to their advantage as he was showered with gifts.

Also Tuesday, Stein mentioned the names of prominent U.S. senators including Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Cory Booker as he alerted prospective jurors to a list of people who could be named or might testify at the trial.

Stein also read the names of Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, among others. Other names included former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, former New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal as well as current and former state lawmakers.

During the jury selection process, Stein has heard a variety of reasons why people say they should be excused from the trial of the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, resident that is projected to stretch to July. Some have cited medical reasons while others say their jobs or travel plans would be too adversely affected.

But several have said they worry that they have heard too much to be fair about the case in which Menendez, 70, was charged with bribery, extortion, fraud and obstruction of justice, along with acting as a foreign agent of Egypt.

“I’m a news junkie, and I’ve learned about the case already significantly. I knew it was Bob Menendez the second I walked in,” one juror said.

“As did many people,” the judge shot back before asking if the man could still decide the case based on trial testimony. The man said he thought he could.

Jurors were identified only by numbers during the selection process.

After his arrest last fall, Menendez was forced from his powerful post as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After three terms in the Senate, he has announced he will not be seeking reelection on the Democratic ticket this fall, although he has not ruled out running as an independent.

Menendez has faced trial before in an unrelated case. In 2017, a federal jury deadlocked on corruption charges brought in New Jersey, and prosecutors did not seek to retry him.

In the new case, an indictment accused the senator of taking actions on behalf of the businessmen that would benefit the governments of Egypt and Qatar. Menendez has insisted he did not do anything unusual in his dealings with foreign officials.

According to an indictment, codefendant Fred Daibes, a real estate developer, delivered gold bars and cash to Menendez and his wife to get the senator to help him secure a multimillion-dollar deal with a Qatari investment fund by acting in ways favorable to Qatar’s government.

The indictment also said Menendez did things benefitting Egyptian officials in exchange for bribes from codefendant Wael Hana as the businessman secured a lucrative deal with the Egyptian government to certify that imported meat met Islamic dietary requirements.