Defense witnesses in Sen. Bob Menendez's bribery trial begin testimony

Washington — Sen. Bob Menendez’s older sister testified Monday about their family’s habit of storing cash at home, explaining it as “a Cuban thing.” 

The New Jersey Democrat’s sister, Caridad Gonzalez, was the first witness called by the defense in the eighth week of the senator’s bribery trial. Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez — both of whom have pleaded not guilty — are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold and other bribes in exchange for political favors. 

Gonzalez told jurors of their family fleeing Cuba in 1951, before Menendez was born. The family brought a grandfather clock with cash hidden inside it to the U.S. 

They were afraid of losing everything they worked so hard for, because, in Cuba, they took everything away from you, whether you liked it or not,” she said of her parents hiding cash at home

Her testimony underscores the justification Menendez gave for the stockpile of cash investigators found in the New Jersey home he shares with his wife.  

After Menendez was charged last year with corruption, he explained that for 30 years he withdrew thousands of dollars each month from his personal savings account in case of emergencies. The “old-fashioned” habit, he said, had roots in his family’s experience in Cuba.

When federal investigators executed a search warrant at Menendez’s home in June 2022, they found more than $480,000 in cash stashed in envelopes, coats, shoes and bags, as well as 13 gold bars worth more than $100,000. 

“Daddy always said don’t trust the banks,” Gonzalez testified. If you trust the banks, you never know what can happen, so you must always have money at home.” 

In the 1980s, she said, Menendez asked her to retrieve $500 in cash from a shoe box in a closet of his home. She recalled having no reaction to the finding stacks of $100 bills and $20 bills inside. 

“It was normal,” she said. 

Russell Richardson, a forensic accountant who analyzed Menendez’s cash withdrawals, testified that the senator took out about $400 twice a month between 2008 and 2022. Those withdrawals totaled more than $150,000, he said. 

Some of the cash seized from Menendez’s home was found in bundles of $10,000. Richardson told prosecutor Catherine Ghosh during cross-examination that he did not find $10,000 withdrawals in the bank records he analyzed. 

Nadine Menendez’s younger sister, Katia Tabourian, also testified on behalf of the defense, describing how she first learned that her sister was dating a senator on election night in November 2018. 

“She texted me and asked me to reach out to Bob because they had broken up and she wanted me to try to liaise with him and get them back together,” Tabourian said. 

According to Tabourian, her sister’s previous “unhealthy” relationship “was creating a lot of chaos in her relationship with the senator.” Menendez was “fed up with the previous relationship constantly coming in between,” she said. 

At some point after that, Menendez and his future wife reconciled and he proposed in October 2019 in front of the Taj Mahal. 

“They are an extremely loving couple, caring couple,” Tabourian said, describing the senator as “very respectful” to his wife. 

Adam Fee, a lawyer for Menendez, asked Tabourian whether he had ever seen the senator “ring a little bell to summon Nadine,” recalling a story told by the prosecution’s key witness about one of his meetings in which the witness said he asked the senator directly for help. 

“A what?” Tabourian asked. “A bell? … No. I have never seen a bell.” 

Tabourian also testified that her sister locked her bedroom closet because years ago a nanny stole “a good amount” of cash that she kept there. Her sister also had gold and jewelry that she inherited from family, Tabourian said. 

Nadine Menendez’s trial was postponed until later this summer while she recovers from breast cancer surgery. 

It’s unclear if Menendez or the two businessmen on trial with him will testify in their own defense. The businessmen, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, have also pleaded not guilty. 

Throughout the last seven weeks, the senator’s lawyers have sought to undermine the credibility of government witnesses, trying to sow doubt about how much Menendez knew about what prosecutors say was a sprawling scheme that began in 2018. 

Menendez is accused of using his influence as the then-chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee to secretly benefit Egypt; pressuring a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to protect a halal certification monopoly Egypt granted to Hana; and interfering in criminal cases in New Jersey involving Daibes and another businessman Jose Uribe. 

Uribe, a former insurance broker, pleaded guilty to trying to bribe the senator and was the government’s star witness, testifying that he bought a Mercedes-Benz convertible for Menendez’s wife in exchange for the senator’s “power and influence” to stop investigations related to his business associates. 

Uribe told jurors that he had several conversations with Menendez about the investigations, but they never discussed the car or how it was paid for. He said he assumed the senator’s wife had kept him informed of the deal. 

Prosecutors have alleged the senator used his wife as a go-between for the bribes. 

But Menendez’s lawyers have insisted that Nadine Menendez kept him in the dark about her activities, telling jurors that he had no key to her locked closet where gold bars and some of the cash was found in their Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, home during an FBI search in June 2022. Menendez, who moved into his wife’s longtime home, was also unaware that she was struggling financially, according to his lawyers.

Prosecutors asserted that it’s inaccurate to portray the senator and his wife as living separate lives, introducing evidence that showed Menendez regularly checked in on her location using the “Find My Friends” iPhone app, as well as text messages about Nadine Menendez running errands for the senator and doing laundry. 

After jurors were dismissed for the day on Thursday, prosecutors and defense lawyers argued to the judge about whether details from Nadine Menendez’s relationship with an ex-boyfriend could be used in court. 

The senator’s lawyers said the relationship was abusive and making jurors aware of that would provide context to some of the evidence they’ve already seen. But the judge said he would limit what they can hear. 

“There can be some evidence that there was an issue with a boyfriend concerning physical safety,” U.S. District Court Judge Sidney Stein told lawyers, adding “this is not going to turn into a soap opera.” Stein indicated he would allow Menendez’s attorneys to establish there was an ex-boyfriend and Nadine Menendez “was concerned about the ex-boyfriend, that was the reason they got this phone,” the one that Sen. Menendez was using to check on her location.

Tabourian testified that the couple used the app because her sister “was afraid of her previous relationship.” 

In May, Stein ruled that a psychiatrist who evaluated Menendez would not be allowed to testify about “two significant traumatic events” in his life that his lawyers say explain the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stashed in his home. Stein said he would allow limited testimony from a certified public accountant about the senator’s financial records. 

Ash Kalmar contributed reporting. 

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