(Bloomberg) -- The corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez began with his lawyer saying the New Jersey Democrat committed no crimes and blaming the politician’s wife for gold bars seized at their home by FBI agents, who also found $480,000 in cash that prosecutors branded as bribes. 

Defense attorney Avi Weitzman told jurors Wednesday in New York that the cash seized by agents wasn’t the result of bribes but money that the senator had withdrawn over 30 years in $400 to $500 intervals. The lawyer sought to rebut prosecutor claims that Menendez took cash, gold bars and a luxury car from two businessmen to perform favors for them. 

Menendez, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also accused of illegally helping the government of Qatar and acting as an agent of Egypt. Menendez, a three-term senator, lost his political support in the Senate and New Jersey after prosecutors displayed photographs of 13 gold bars and the cash seized at his home in 2022. 

In his opening statement, Weitzman described his client as “an American patriot,” not “an agent for the Egyptian government.” Menendez “did not accept cash or gold or a car in exchange” for corrupt actions, the lawyer said. Rather, he said, “there are innocent explanations for the gold and the cash.”

The prosecutor painted a starkly different picture, saying Menendez sold his office for five years with the help of his wife. 

“This was not politics as usual,” Assistant US Attorney Lara Pomerantz said in her opening statement. “This was politics for profit. Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take, motivated by greed, focused on how much money he could put in his pocket and in his wife’s pocket.”

The senator is on trial with developer Fred Daibes and Egyptian-American businessman Wael Hana. Menendez’s wife, Nadine, is also charged, but has an undisclosed illness and will be tried in July. 

Hidden Challenges

Both were divorced when they began dating in 2018, and Menendez didn’t know the extent of Nadine’s financial problems, Weitzman said. She had been friends with Hana and Daibes, who gave her gold bars without the senator’s knowledge, Weitzman said. 

“Bob and Nadine’s separate lives really help answer how it is that he did not know about the gold bars from Fred Daibes,” Weitzman said. 

“The evidence will show that Nadine was hiding her financial challenges from Bob,” Weitzman said. “She kept things from him. She was outgoing. She was fun-loving. But she was not going to let him know she had financial challenges.”

Weitzman also said the senator took no official actions to benefit Hana, Daibes or the Egyptian government. 

Menendez, 70, faced another corruption trial in 2017, but a federal judge in New Jersey declared a mistrial and prosecutors dropped the case.

Pomerantz said Menendez gave Egyptian officials “sensitive” non-public information about personnel at the US embassy in Cairo and helped Egypt obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid.  

‘Failed Businessman’

Nadine Menendez joined Hana in trying to help Egyptian officials influence the senator, Pomerantz said. Hana, she said, was a “failed businessman” but saw a way out. 

“When Hana learned Nadine was dating a US senator, he saw an opportunity,” the prosecutor said. Over several years, Menendez met “again and again” with Egyptian officials in meetings arranged by Hana and Nadine Menendez, Pomerantz said.

Hana is accused of bribing Menendez so that the senator would help protect the monopoly he secured from Egypt to certify US food exports as compliant with halal standards.

Daibes also faces federal bank fraud charges in New Jersey that figure into the Menendez trial. Pomerantz said Daibes bribed Menendez with cash and gold bars for the senator’s influence in resolving the New Jersey case.  

Menendez was “being bribed by Daibes to disrupt a criminal prosecution,” Pomerantz said. Daibes was giving gold bars worth more than $50,000, the prosecutor said. During this time, Menendez repeatedly searched the internet for the price of a gold bar, Pomerantz said. 

When FBI agents raided Menendez’s house, they found cash stuffed in envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets and a safe. Some envelopes bore the fingerprints and DNA of Daibes and his driver, Pomerantz said. 

In his statement, Weitzman said “they found more fingerprints from the FBI agent who collected evidence at the scene than they did from Fred Daibes.”

Qatari Investment 

In June 2021, Daibes sought funding for a real estate project when Menendez introduced him to a Qatari royal family member who was the principal of a Qatari investment company, the US alleges. The Qatari firm entered a joint venture with a Daibes company and agreed to put tens of millions of dollars into the project, the US says. 

Lawyers for Daibes and Hana will deliver their opening statements on Thursday. 

US District Judge Sidney Stein, who’s overseeing the case, denied a Menendez request to have a psychiatrist testify that the senator kept cash because of the “trauma” stemming from his parents fleeing Cuba and having their funds confiscated by the Cuban government. The doctor also would testify about the senator’s trauma “when his father, a compulsive gambler, died by suicide after Senator Menendez eventually decided to discontinue paying off his father’s gambling debts.” Prosecutors opposed the request.

The case is US v. Menendez, 23-cr-490, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

(Updates with details of Menendez lawyer’s opening statement)

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