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Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez goes on trial for taking bribes in exchange for favors

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We start this hour with the federal trial of Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. Jury selection will begin Monday in New York City. He's been accused of accepting bribes in return for taking actions to benefit Egypt and Qatar. We're joined by Nancy Solomon of member station WNYC. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Hi.

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RASCOE: How do federal prosecutors plan to lay out their case?

SOLOMON: Well, you know, the indictment details what's really a sprawling conspiracy that claims Senator Menendez and his wife, Nadine, took bribes from three New Jersey businessmen. It alleged that Menendez, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, convinced the U.S. government to sell Egypt weapons despite concerns about human rights violations. And to raise money for bribes, Menendez helped an Egyptian-born businessman at the center of this scheme to get a monopoly to certify all halal meat exports to Egypt. And there's an obstruction of justice charge for allegedly interfering with the prosecution of two businessmen who are also charged in the scheme.

RASCOE: Prosecutors say the bribes involve gold bars and a Mercedes convertible?

SOLOMON: Yeah. The FBI raided the Menendez home in June of 2022, and they also searched a bank safety deposit box. They found 22 gold bars and stacks of cash hidden around the house, including in the pocket of a bomber jacket that had the senator's name embroidered on it. And they also found a trove of texts and emails on their computers and phones. At one point, it appears that Nadine Menendez was mad that she hadn't been paid for one of these favors and asked the senator what she should do. He told her, you should not text or email. I spoke with Jessica Roth, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Cardozo School of Law. She says, the texts, particularly the ones the couple tried to delete, are going to be hard to explain away.

JESSICA ROTH: And the fact that many of them were encrypted suggests that there was some sense of culpability on the part of the participants that they were trying to keep these messages hidden.

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RASCOE: Menendez has said he's innocent. What do we know about his defense strategy?

SOLOMON: Yeah, it's looking like we might get a he-said-she-said defense. He and his wife have split the trial. So Senator Menendez will be tried first, and then Nadine will have her own separate trial. Based on some court filings, the expectation is that he's going to throw her under the bus and say it was all her doing, and he didn't understand what she was up to. And then when Nadine goes on trial, she will say it was all him. But by that time, her husband's trial will be over and that verdict already in. One of the interesting things about this whole story is that Nadine and Bob Menendez started dating in 2018 right after his first corruption trial. That's the one that accused him of accepting bribes from a Florida eye doctor and ended in a hung jury. And very soon after, she introduced him to the Egyptian-born businessman, the one who got the monopoly on halal exports.

And what you really see from all the texts quoted in the indictment is Nadine really pushing for these deals and fighting to get paid. And when you read all the texts between her and Senator Menendez, it's hard to imagine how either of them didn't understand what was going on. But we haven't heard their side of the story yet.

RASCOE: Nancy Solomon, of member station WNYC. Thank you for speaking with us.

SOLOMON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.
Nancy Solomon