From Capitol Hill to the courtroom: Bob Menendez doesn’t want you to be distracted by shiny objects

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Don’t be distracted by the shiny object.

Or 13 shiny objects — as in bars of gold bullion.

That’s the goal of the attorneys for Sen. Bob. Menendez, the Democrat from New Jersey. The senator is on trial for the second time in less than a decade on unrelated charges.

U.S. senators don’t go on trial very often. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, the Republican from Alaska, was on trial back in 2008. A jury convicted Stevens. Then Stevens had the case overturned. Stevens died in a plane crash after he lost his bid for re-election.

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But who was the last U.S. senator on trial?

Bob Menendez in 2017.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., talks at a Senate Finance hearing on Capitol Hill March 21, 2024, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib, File)

In that case, Menendez was accused of accepting lavish gifts for doing favors for an eye doctor. The case ended in a hung jury.

Menendez torched prosecutors for even bringing that case. And he broke down when the case concluded.

“The way this case started was wrong. The way it was investigated was wrong. The way it was prosecuted was wrong. And the way it was tried was wrong, as well,” said Menendez. “Certain elements of the FBI and of our state cannot understand or, even worse, accept that the Latino kid from Union City and Hudson County can grow up to be a United States senator and be honest.”

Menendez seemingly found redemption upon being given a second lease on his political career.

“Today is Resurrection Day, and I want to thank God once again for allowing me to stand before you, as I walked into this courthouse 11 weeks ago, an innocent man,” Menendez said at the time. 

He then ran for re-election in 2018 and won.

The government says that’s where trouble began.

Menedez is accused of taking bribes from businessmen in the Garden State in exchange for favors. Among them, operating as a foreign agent for Qatar. That’s where the gold bars come in. The feds accuse Menendez of accepting the gold bars from New Jersey businessman Fred Daibes in exchange for using his muscle to help get a deal with a Qatari investment fund.

The goal of Menendez’s defense counsel is to convince jurors there isn’t necessarily a connection between the gold bars and official favors.

Although prosecutors will point out that Menendez did multiple internet searches, trying to determine the worth of gold bars in kilos.

Another charge targets Menendez and the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Investigators claim they were doing the bidding of Egypt. In particular, the feds accuse Menendez of writing shadow letters on behalf of senators, trying to dislodge a Senate holdup on $300 million in military aid targeted for Cairo.

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Prosecutors also accuse Menendez of taking payments to help Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman, score an agreement with the government of Egypt. Hana wanted the Egyptians to certify that his imported halal meat met appropriate dietary guidelines for Muslims.

Menendez argued that working with constituents was just what lawmakers do.

“What a chilling effect on the mere engagements and of these conversations it would be,” Menendez said of lawmakers simply engaging with people who seek government assistance. “The United States Attorney’s Office is not engaged in a prosecution but a persecution. They seek a victory. Not justice.”

Jury selection took place over several days.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Dec. 7, 2023, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

On the first day, Judge Sidney Stein dismissed 38 possible jurors outright, then hauled in another pool of 50 prospective jurors. One possible juror cited work at the Rockland County New York Humane Society as a problem with her serving.

Another said she had a non-refundable trip scheduled to Rome. Stein let her go but questioned the validity of the lack of an available refund.

A children’s librarian from Greenwich, Conn., was one of the jury candidates. After she left, Stein opined on that line of work in another life.

“I’m telling you, that’s what I would do. Children’s librarian,” said Stein.

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It’s probably not that different from negotiating terms for a federal trial for a U.S. senator.

One jury candidate told the court about a fear of heights, noting that the courtroom is on the 23rd floor of the Daniel P. Moynihan Courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

Another possible juror announced she just had an ingrown toenail removed and couldn’t serve due to a litany of other maladies.

“I think she’d be too much of a problem,” Stein said after excusing her.

At least it wasn’t a hangnail.

And, after all, the goal of Stein is to avoid a hung jury.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, left, and his wife Nadine Menendez arrive at the federal courthouse in New York Sept. 27, 2023.  (AP Photo/Jeenah Moon, File)

Stein also told potential jurors some of the testimony in the trial may be in Spanish and Arabic, through an interpreter.

Stein also presented a list of various political figures, ranging from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to Rep. Dan Goldman, D-N.Y. Stein advised the jury candidates they should speak up if they know any of those figures or are familiar with them. Stein didn’t say they would appear as witnesses, but he did say their names may come up in the trial. None are accused of wrongdoing.

At the 2017 trial of Menendez, his Garden State colleague, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., sat in the courtroom on the first day for moral support. Booker testified as a character witness on behalf of Menendez, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

But for this trial, Menendez appears to be on his own.

“I’m not going to follow the day-to-day. I’ll be waiting for the verdict,” said Booker.

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Menendez has disappointed Senate Democrats who hoped he would resign. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., often gives a variation of the same pat answer when asked whether Menendez should step down or if the Senate should expel the senator.

“The Senate has standards as to proper behavior. And Sen. Menendez’s behavior has fallen way below that,” replied Schumer.

Menendez will not run for re-election as a Democrat. But he could do so as an independent. In fact, the senator cracked open the door to that possibility. The filing deadline is June 4. The trial could run through mid-July.