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May 17, 2024

Gold bars in baggies and cash crammed in boots: Prosecutors detail Sen. Menendez's hoarded riches

On the witness stand, an FBI agent said investigators needed an automated bill counter to tally all the money they found in the New Jersey Democrat's home.

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Menendez Trial Kevin R. Wexler/ via USA TODAY NETWORK

At Sen. Bob Menendez trial, the prosecution spent hours chronicling the cash, gold, and other items FBI agents found during a June 16, 2022, search of the couple's Englewood Cliffs home.

Peek into Sen. Bob Menendez's closets and basement, and you'll learn he's secretly a slob, with his and his wife's belongings strewn around as if a typhoon just blew through.

But in 2022, that chaos hid something worse, federal prosecutors said Thursday — proof of his corruption. Jammed into jackets and boots and crammed into bags and boxes were 13 gold bars and $486,461 in cash, the fruits of five years of bribes New Jersey's senior senator and his wife took from three businessmen hungry for Menendez's influence, prosecutors said.

MORE: Fentanyl drug packaging operation busted in Kensington

On the fourth day of the Democratic senator's corruption trial in Manhattan, prosecutor Lara Pomerantz spent several hours chronicling the cash, gold, and other items FBI agents found during a June 16, 2022, search of the couple's Englewood Cliffs home.

Aristotelis Kougemitros, the FBI special agent who led the search, narrated photos of the senator's home and its hoarded riches, and Pomerantz gave the confiscated cash and gold, sealed in evidence bags, to jurors for inspection.

Investigators found so much money in envelopes — banded together in stacks or loose in bags — that they quit photographing it and Kougemitros called for backup, he testified. Two agents arrived with an automated cash counter.

"The sheer volume of bills that we encountered was too much to count by hand," he said.

Thursday, Pomerantz and Kougemitros took so long to list all the loot investigators found around the Menendezes' split-level home that U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein stood up to stretch his legs.

Menendez lawyer Avi Weitzman had told jurors on Wednesday that the senator's wife, Nadine, took the cash, gold, and other bribes without her husband's knowledge and stashed much of it in her deadbolted closet and the locked safe inside it.

The senator had a habit of keeping cash at home, rooted in his experience as the son of immigrants who fled Cuba with nothing, Weitzman added. Check the money's date, he told jurors, saying they were older bills long out of circulation that would prove Menendez collected them over decades.

EARLIER AT THE MENENDEZ TRIAL: Did Sen. Menendez take bribes, or was he duped by his wife? His federal trial is underway.

On Thursday, Pomerantz clearly sought to deflate that defense. She showed seized stacks of hundred-dollar bills with April 2022 dates stamped on the bank's band. She told jurors most of the money was found packed into pockets of the senator's coats and in bags in the commonly accessible basement.

The closet in question became a point of debate, with Kougemitros insisting investigators found Menendez's navy blazer and men's ties hanging inside the closet, suggesting it was a shared space.

But Adam Fee, a Menendez attorney, pushed back on cross-examination, countering that the blazer was hanging on the back of the master bedroom door, not inside the closet, which he said was Nadine's alone.

The men's ties? They belonged to a teenager who used to live in the home, Fee said, pointing to the skulls and cheese-eating mice dotting several ties. Nadine Menendez had two children from a previous marriage, including a son named Andre.

Fee asked Kougemitros if he'd ever seen the senator wear such sassy ties.

"In fairness, I haven't really studied photos of Senator Menendez wearing ties," Kougemitros responded.

In court, Menendez's ties have leaned patriotic, every day a different variation of red and blue.

Cash aside, all the gold bars the FBI seized were found in the closet, Fee said. Whoever put them there didn't worry about their storage, photos showed. One was wrapped in a paper towel, shoved in a Ziploc bag, and left on the floor beneath other detritus.

Beyond the cash, gold bars, jewelry, air purifier, and fitness machine the couple allegedly accepted as bribes, the FBI's photos show the couple liked luxury brands, with bags branded Prada, Giorgio Armani, Burberry, and more making appearances in the pictures.

Menendez listened to the testimony without much of a reaction, occasionally resting his cheek in his palm.

Prosecutors are 'sensationalizing' gift-giving, defense says

Before Pomerantz called Kougemitros as the case's first witness, the attorneys for Menendez's two co-defendants — Wael "Will" Hana and Fred Daibes — delivered their opening statements.

Hana is an Egyptian-American businessman and longtime friend of Nadine Menendez who prosecutors say bribed the couple with gold and cash to help him gain a monopoly on exporting halal meat to Egypt, free up military arms and aid to Egypt, and supply sensitive U.S. government information to Egyptian officials.

Daibes is an Edgewater real estate developer who prosecutors say gave Menendez gold and cash to disrupt a bank fraud investigation into him by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey and help him land a lucrative investment from a member of Qatar's royal family.

Attorney Lawrence Lustberg, who represents Hana, told jurors prosecutors were making innocent actions look sinister by criminalizing friendships, commercial success, and advocating for one's homeland.

Hana had been close friends with Nadine Menendez for 15 years and gave her gifts out of friendship, Lustberg said. Gold is a gift people particularly from the Middle East like to give, he added.

"Will's gifts got nicer as his business succeeded," Lustberg said.

Prosecutors say Hana also gave Nadine Menendez a low- or no-show job at his meat exporting business as a bribe. Lustberg conceded Hana paid her three $10,000 checks to help him set up operations in other countries as his business expanded. But she didn't do the work, so "he fired her," he added.

"Ask yourself – is this what a briber does?" Lustberg said.

Attorney Cesar de Castro, who represents Daibes, echoed Lustberg's sentiment, saying prosecutors were "sensationalizing" gift-giving. This is the argument Menendez and his friend and co-defendant, Salomon Melgen, made during their 2017 corruption trial, which ended in a hung jury.

"Investing in precious metals like gold is normal and common … gold is even sold at Costco," de Castro said. "There's nothing criminal about being generous."

Fee is expected to resume his cross examination of Kougemitros Friday. Prosecutors have indicated they plan to call an FBI agent to testify Monday to talk about Menendez's actions in Egypt.

Nadine Menendez reveals cancer diagnosis

While Menendez treks to Manhattan daily to fight his second corruption case in the past decade, his wife has been home battling a medical crisis that prompted Stein to postpone her trial to at least July.

Thursday, as de Castro was defending Daibes, Menendez's Senate staff sent out a statement revealing that Nadine Menendez has grade 3 breast cancer and needs a mastectomy, follow-up surgery, and possibly radiation treatment.

In the statement, Menendez said his wife decided to ask him to disclose her medical condition "as a result of constant press inquiries and reporters following my wife."

"We are of course, concerned about the seriousness and advanced stage of the disease," he said in the statement. "We hope and pray for the best results. We ask the press and the public to give her the time, space and privacy to deal with this challenging health condition as she undergoes surgery and recovery."

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