New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez's strategy to blame his wife in a bribery trial could have pitfalls

Washington — During the first five weeks of Sen. Bob Menendez's bribery trial, his lawyers peppered government witnesses with questions aimed at shifting blame to the New Jersey Democrat's wife. Nadine.

Legal experts say Menendez's strategy is not unique but could backfire on jurors.

“An empty chair defense when a spouse is involved is somewhat risky because some jurors may see the defendant blaming their spouse in an unfavorable way, and that could potentially influence the overall perception of the defense,” said Luke Cass, a former federal prosecutor who handled the case. corruption investigations into government officials.

Scott Hulsey, a former federal prosecutor, said blaming his wife carries “a very different kind of baggage” for Menendez than if he were to blame someone else.

“Blaming the person you're married to for something that went wrong could offend some people's idea of ​​what marriage is and what it's about,” Hulsey said.

Both the senator and his wife have pleaded not guilty to well over a dozen charges related to a massive bribery scheme. The trial of Nadine Menendez has been postponed to August because she is recovering from breast cancer surgery. Jurors were not informed of the diagnosis made by the senator revealed to the public a day after his lawyers pinned the blame on his wife.

President Biden receives Indian Prime Minister Modi for a state visit
Senator Bob Menendez and Nadine Menendez arrive at the White House for a state dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 22, 2023.

Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Menendez's attorneys have tried to portray the couple as leading largely separate livesalleging that the senator was unaware of his wife's financial problems and her dealings with the three New Jersey businessmen accused of bribing them with cash, gold bars, mortgage payments and a Mercedes-Benz convertible in exchange for his political influence.

The couple does not share bank accounts or credit cards, and Menendez never paid or received statements for the mortgage on his wife's old home after moving in with her in recent years, according to his attorney Avi Weitzman. His lawyers have also said that Nadine Menendez has a separate – and locked – closet.

“She kept things from him,” Weitzman said during opening statements. “She kept him in the dark about what she was asking others to give her. She was outgoing. She was cheerful. But she had no intention of letting Bob know she was having financial problems.”

Weitzman said Nadine Menendez tried to “obtain cash and assets in any way possible” and kept the senator “sidelined from those conversations.”

At the beginning of the trial, an FBI agent testified about the discovery of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and gold bars in the couple's New Jersey home. The officer was certain that a man's blazer had been hanging in a locked closet full of women's clothing where the gold bars had been found. Menendez's lawyers say the senator did not have a key to his wife's closet and questioned the officer's memory based on a photo of the blazer hanging outside the closet. The next day, the officer said he wanted to correct his testimony after reviewing photos of the search. The blazer, he said, was hanging outside the closet.

fbi-photo-of-nadines-closet.png
Prosecutors showed jurors a photo of a closet full of women's clothing where gold bars had been discovered by the FBI. A man's blazer hung on the outside.

Justice


Weitzman asked another FBI agent who testified about finding nearly $80,000 in a safe deposit box belonging to Nadine Menendez at a nearby bank about the visitor log.

“Every time the customer says access with the customer listed as Nadine Arslanian, right?” the lawyer said, using her previous last name.

“Yes,” the FBI agent confirmed.

“And every time it says 'no guest', right?” Weitzman asked.

“That's what it says, yes,” said the officer.

There were few victories for the defense. But the prosecution's key witness, Jose Uribe, complicated Menendez's strategy of accusing his wife when he testified this week that he asked the senator for help immediately in stopping a criminal investigation involving two people close to him, and the senator said he would “look into it.”

Uribe, who has pleaded guilty to trying to bribe the senator and is cooperating with prosecutors, said he believed Menendez knew he had made a deal with his wife to buy her a Mercedes in exchange for the help from the senator, because Nadine Menendez repeatedly tried to set up a meeting between them. The men never discussed the car payments, but he also wasn't told to keep it a secret, Uribe testified.

“You have a witness saying, it wasn't your wife I was dealing with, I was dealing with you,” Hulsey said. “It's another thing he's going to have to explain away as he tries to shift the blame to someone else.”

Following his meeting with Uribe, the senator met with then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who testified last week that Menendez indicated he wanted to discuss concerns about an ongoing criminal case. “I can't talk to you about this,” Grewal recalled telling Menendez.

“You put those things together and this, from my perspective, becomes much more complicated for Senator Menendez,” Hulsey said.

Jonathan Kravis, a former federal corruption prosecutor, believes there is a greater risk that Menendez's strategy will backfire with the six female jurors than with the six men.

“A lot of it depends on the performance and how you present it, and whether you can convey it in a way that doesn't come across as sexist or condescending or like you're just trying to pin it on her,” Kravis said. .

Menendez's lawyers are likely debating or he will testify in the coming weeks, which would leave him vulnerable to questions that could undermine his characterization of his relationship with his wife and how involved their lives were, Kravis said.

“The prosecution has begun to present evidence of communications between Menendez and his wife that are not directly related to the conduct at issue, but merely seek to establish that they are deeply involved in each other's lives,” he said.

Those communications included text messages about Nadine Menendez running errands for the senator and doing laundry. The senator also contacted her via the iPhone app 'Find My Friends'.

A lawyer for Nadine Menendez declined to comment on her husband's strategy.

Senator Menendez indicted on further charges in New York City
New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, arrive at a Manhattan court for an arraignment on new charges in the federal bribery case against them on March 11, 2024, in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images


It's a strategy similar to that of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who was tried a decade ago along with his wife on charges that they accepted tens of thousands of dollars in loans and gifts from a nutritional supplement executive in exchange for political favors. .

Blaming his wife, McDonnell claimed that his marriage was so dysfunctional that they could not have conspired to accept the bribes.

The Supreme Court overturned McDonnell's conviction in 2016, narrowing the definition of what type of conduct could serve as a basis for charges of public corruption. McDonnell filed for divorce in 2019.

Cass said public corruption cases are some of the most difficult to prove. But in Menendez's case, he said, some jurors may find it hard to believe that a sitting U.S. senator was unaware of the events happening under his own roof.

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