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Opening statements began in the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Opening statements began today in the corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez. Until recently, the New Jersey Democrat was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He stepped down from that position after he was charged last year. But Menendez, who has pleaded not guilty, has refused to resign his Senate seat and is still running for reelection this fall, though not as a Democrat. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas was in the courthouse to watch today's proceedings, and he joins us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

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SUMMERS: Ryan, remind us, if you can, what the charges are against Menendez.

LUCAS: So he was initially indicted alongside his wife, Nadine, and three New Jersey businessmen. Menendez himself faces 16 counts in this trial. They include bribery, a public official acting as a foreign agent, obstruction of justice. There's honest services wire fraud. There are a whole bunch more. Two of the New Jersey businessmen are Menendez's co-defendants in this trial. The third businessman who was originally charged, he pleaded guilty earlier this year. He's been cooperating with prosecutors. He's expected to testify in this trial. Menendez's wife was also charged. She is not on trial now, but she is scheduled to face trial separately this summer.

SUMMERS: Ryan, what did the prosecutors say in their opening statement to the jury today?

LUCAS: Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Pomerantz did the opening statement for the government. And she said in the U.S., elected leaders are expected to put the country first, to put the interests of the people that they serve above their own interests. In this case, she said, the public servant, Senator Menendez, put his greed first. She says Menendez put his power up for sale and that he betrayed the people that he was elected to serve by taking bribes. She mentioned many times to the jury the gold bars and stacks of cash, almost half a million dollars, in fact, that FBI agents found in a search of the Menendezes' home.

She says the two businessmen on trial with him were the ones providing these bribes. And in return, she said Menendez used his power, used his influence as a member of the U.S. Senate to protect these businessmen from state and federal law enforcement investigations, and also to help their businesses and also, she said, to benefit the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

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Now, Pomerantz also tried to appear to get out ahead of possible defenses. She said Menendez was smart. He limited his own contacts with co-defendants and used his wife as a go-between. She also said that Menendez's actions here were not politics as usual. This was not constituent services. This, she said, was politics for profit, and that, she said, is why we're in the courthouse today.

SUMMERS: OK. And what about Menendez's attorneys? What did they have to say?

LUCAS: So Menendez attorney Avi Weitzman spoke for more than an hour to the jury, and he told them Menendez took no bribes. He said, Menendez is a patriot. He said he's a public servant for more than 50 years. And he said that the jury won't hear from a single witness who will say they talked about bribes with Menendez. He says every action that the DOJ alleges Menendez took is really just Menendez advocating on behalf of his constituents, as a good public servant should.

Now, Weitzman did address what he called the elephant in the room, the gold bars, the cash. He said, it smells fishy, but there's an explanation. Gold bars were found in Menendez's wife's house, her locked closet. Menendez, he said, didn't know about them. He said they were Nadine's family gold. And he also rejected the allegation that Menendez was working to benefit Egypt. Weitzman said Menendez was doing a diplomatic dance with the military dictatorship.

SUMMERS: Sure sounds like he's distancing Menendez from Menendez's wife.

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LUCAS: That's absolutely it. She was involved in things, not Menendez. And on the cash question, Weitzman said Menendez had withdrawn $500 a couple of times a month for decades because of his family history. Family lost everything when fleeing Cuba, and he said that's why Menendez had so much cash at home.

SUMMERS: That is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALIA SONG, "IN THE CLUB" ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ryan Lucas
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.