Senator Menendez, Charged in Bribery Scheme, May Blame His Wife

Equipo
By Equipo
6 Min Read

Senator Robert Menendez may blame his wife, Nadine Menendez, for the bribery charges the couple is facing by claiming that she hid information from him and led him to believe that “nothing unlawful was taking place,” according to court papers unsealed on Tuesday.

The revelation was contained in two sentences in a legal brief filed by Mr. Menendez’s lawyers. They had asked a judge to keep the information secret because it detailed trial strategy that, if made public, would “surely garner significant media attention” and “bias the jury pool.”

The new insight into Mr. Menendez’s defense comes just three weeks before he and two New Jersey businessmen are scheduled to go on trial in Manhattan, accused of participating in a wide-ranging corruption scheme. Ms. Menendez’s trial date was postponed to July after her lawyers told the judge she had a “serious medical condition” that would require surgery and a potentially extended period of treatment and recovery.

The senator and his wife are accused of accepting cash, gold and a luxury car in exchange for Mr. Menendez’s willingness to use his political influence to help allies in New Jersey and to aid the governments of Egypt and Qatar. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty.

According to the newly unsealed section of the brief, Mr. Menendez may testify at his trial and, if he does, he would disclose communications with Ms. Menendez that would “tend to exonerate” him but may incriminate his wife.

The unsealing was ordered by a judge, Sidney H. Stein of Federal District Court, at the request of a coalition of news organizations.

Ms. Menendez’s lawyers said they had no comment on the senator’s apparent defense strategy.

Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, which brought the charges, also declined to comment.

The legal brief that contained the peek into trial strategy was originally filed in January under seal, with a redacted version posted on the public docket. The two sentences in Mr. Menendez’s brief remained redacted until the judge’s order on Tuesday.

The issue of Mr. Menendez’s legal strategy first arose at a time when the senator and his wife were each asking the judge for separate trials because of the complications posed by a married couple’s being tried together.

Mr. Menendez’s lawyers argued that to try them together “threatens the senator’s right to a fair trial by, among other things, forcing him to choose between two fundamental rights: his right to testify in his own defense and his right not to testify against his spouse.”

For months, Mr. Menendez’s lawyers have strongly suggested that they planned to claim that the senator was duped by his wife. In a portion of the January legal brief that was not redacted, they noted that the senator “lacked the requisite knowledge of much of the conduct and statements of his wife.”

“By this defense,” the lawyers wrote, they “may have to argue, in effect, that any unlawful conduct — and we are aware of none — involved the actions of others (including Nadine), not the senator.”

If Mr. Menendez chooses to testify, his lawyers wrote, he is likely to explain, for example, what he and his wife discussed during the dinners prosecutors say she arranged with Egyptian officials. He might also disclose the explanations that Ms. Menendez gave him about why two other defendants “provided her certain monetary items,” they wrote.

In the newly unredacted portions of the brief, Mr. Menendez’s lawyers add that while these explanations, and the marital communications on which they rely, “will tend to exonerate Senator Menendez by demonstrating the absence of any improper intent on Senator Menendez’s part, they may inculpate Nadine by demonstrating the ways in which she withheld information from Senator Menendez or otherwise led him to believe that nothing unlawful was taking place.”

Ms. Menendez, 57, and Mr. Menendez, 70, married in 2020. Prosecutors have said that the bribery conspiracy at the core of the criminal charges originated in February 2018, soon after they began dating.

Ms. Menendez, according to a federal indictment, played a central role in the conspiracy. Prosecutors said she served as a go-between who transferred messages between her husband, their co-defendants and Egyptian officials. Several of the alleged bribes — a Mercedes-Benz convertible, mortgage payments and a low- or no-show job — were provided to Ms. Menendez.

Earlier on Tuesday, prosecutors asked Judge Stein to delay the senator’s trial, currently scheduled for May 6, explaining that negotiations with defense lawyers had broken down over a particular pretrial issue. If the conflict is not resolved, the prosecutors said, one co-defendant, Wael Hana, will have to retain a new lawyer.

Mr. Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, and Mr. Menendez’s lawyers, Adam Fee and Avi Weitzman, each responded in letters to the judge, rejecting the government’s assertion that there was an impasse. Mr. Fee and Mr. Weitzman argued that prosecutors had “manufactured” the dispute.

Judge Stein said he would hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss the disagreement and the timing of the trial.

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