NEW YORK — Sen. Robert Menendez “put his power up for sale” and “betrayed the people he was supposed to serve,” a prosecutor claimed Wednesday at the start of the New Jersey Democrat’s federal bribery trial in New York.

The defense meanwhile introduced Menendez “not as an agent of the Egyptian government” but as “an American patriot” who “took no bribes.”

Menendez has pleaded not guilty to 16 federal charges including bribery, fraud, acting as a foreign agent and obstruction.

Federal prosecutors in New York have alleged that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in the form of cash, gold bars, mortgage payments and a luxury convertible in exchange for the senator’s political clout. Three New Jersey businessmen who were also charged, along with the governments of Egypt and Qatar, were the alleged recipients.

Sen. Bob Menendez, right, sits with his defense team during jury selection, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Manhattan federal court in New York.

Sen. Bob Menendez, right, sits with his defense team during jury selection, Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Manhattan federal court in New York.

(Candace E. Eaton via AP)

“He was powerful. He was also corrupt,” prosecutor Lara Pomerantz said of the senator during her opening statement. “In the United States of America, leaders are expected to put their country first, to put the interests of the people they serve above their own. This case is about a public official who put greed first.”

Pomerantz pointed at Menendez, who was seated at the defense table with his head turned toward the jurors.

“This is Robert Menendez, a United States senator from New Jersey, and he was entrusted to make big decisions, including decisions that affect this country’s national security,” Pomerantz said. “Robert Menendez was a United States senator on the take, motivated by greed, focused on how much money he could put in his own pocket and in his wife’s pocket. That is why you’re here today. That is what this trial is all about.”

His price, Pomerantz told the jury, was gold bars, envelopes stuffed with cash, checks to his wife for a no-show job and a Mercedes-Benz convertible.

This image provided by the U.S. Attorney's office shows two of the gold bars found during a search by federal agents of Sen. Bob Menendez's home and safe deposit box.

This image provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office shows two of the gold bars found during a search by federal agents of Sen. Bob Menendez’s home and safe deposit box.

U.S. Attorney’s Office via AP

“This was not politics as usual. This was politics for profit,” Pomerantz said. “The FBI found gold bars and over $400,000 in cash in Menendez’s home, in a safe, in jacket pockets, in shoes, all over the house.”

Pomerantz outlined the alleged corruption schemes that she said “filled Menendez’s pockets,” starting with a promise to assist the government of Egypt with military aid.

“Menendez promised to use his power to help Egypt. And that deal, bribes for Menendez’s promise to help Egypt, lasted for years,” Pomerantz said.

According to the indictment, the arrangement was brokered by New Jersey businessman Wael Hana, a friend of Menendez’s wife, Nadine, who prosecutors said received the senator’s help preserving a halal meat monopoly.

“Robert Menendez was willing to corruptly use his power to help Hana and the government of Egypt in exchange for bribes. What the law calls quid pro quo,” Pomerantz said. “Sham paychecks and gold from Hana for Menendez’s promise of military aid for Egypt.”

Menendez is also charged with receiving a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible in exchange for help disrupting a case by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office.

“Why did Menendez agree to disrupt a criminal investigation? Because Nadine needed a car,” Pomerantz said. “Menendez would try to make the investigation go away.”

In the spring of 2019, another New Jersey businessman, Jose Uribe, handed Nadine $15,000 in cash that prosecutors said she used as a down payment for the car. She texted Menendez, “Congratulations. We are the proud owners of a 2019 Mercedes,” according to Pomerantz. Uribe, who has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate, kept making the monthly payments, prosecutors said.

Not long after Menendez allegedly agreed to use his power to intervene in a state criminal case, Pomerantz said the senator promised a third businessman, Fred Daibes, that he would interfere with Daibes’ federal prosecution and help the government of Qatar by supporting a Senate resolution praising the country.

“What did Menendez get in exchange? Cash and gold bars,” Pomerantz said.

She told the jury that Daibes’ fingerprints were found on the envelopes of cash found at Menendez’s home and serial numbers on the gold bars traced them to Daibes and Hana.

At the time, the gold bars were worth $50,000 apiece, prosecutors said.

“Did Menendez know how much they were worth? You bet,” Pomerantz said. “Menendez Googled the price of a kilogram of gold.”

In his opening statement, defense attorney Avi Weitzman insisted “there are innocent explanations for the gold and the cash” found in the senator’s New Jersey home — hinting at a strategy to blame Menendez’s wife, who was also charged in the case.

“The gold bars were found in a closet that is a locked closet. It is Nadine’s closet,” Weitzman said. “He did not know of the gold bars that existed in that closet.”

Weitzman said the couple led “separate lives” and the senator’s wife had financial concerns that she kept from her husband.

“The evidence will show that Nadine was hiding her financial challenges from Bob,” he said.

Menendez’s wife has pleaded not guilty to her charges and will be tried separately in July due to a medical condition.

The defense said “the government has been investigating this case for years” and came up with “not one piece” of evidence that shows the senator took a bribe.

“He did not violate the law, period, and the allegations by the United States Attorney’s Office are wrong, dead wrong,” Weitzman said. “He did not ask for bribes. He did not get any bribes.”

Menendez has said all of the actions in the indictment fell within the scope of his position.

“Bob was doing his job and he was doing it right,” Weitzman said.

Weitzman went on to compare Menendez to the bespectacled character in the “Where’s Waldo” children’s books with the blue pants, red and white striped shirt and cap always lost in a crowd.

Weitzman displayed on a screen the signature crowded landscape from the books with cartoonish words “Where’s Bob?” and invited the jury to think of it during the trial.

“Every time the government shows you something about Nadine, just ask yourself, ‘Where’s Bob?'” Weitzman said.

Weitzman insisted the two led separate lives.

“He didn’t know about the dealings Nadine had,” Weitzman said of Menendez. “You can’t just assume that Bob knows about them.”

Weitzman showed the jury a photo of Menendez’s closet, dress shirts neatly hanging, and said no cash was found there. He said much of the cash was found in the basement of Nadine’s home and was withdrawn over 30 years.

“I know that sounds odd,” Weitzman said. “From a young age, the senator learned the value of having cash,” which the lawyer said was the product of his upbringing by parents who fled Cuba. “These were not bills that were given as bribes.”

The seated jury, which was selected and sworn in earlier Wednesday, includes a retired economist, an occupational therapist who likes “hanging out with my dog,” an attorney originally from Michigan and someone who “had a nephew locked up for molestation.” All pledged to be fair.

“I’m going to ask, to the extent you feel comfortable, to minimize your news intake,” Judge Sidney Stein told prospective jurors at one point.

Before opening statements, the judge precluded testimony from a psychiatrist the defense hoped would bolster Menendez’s claim that he stashed cash in his home as a result of a “fear of scarcity.” Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, has said it was part of his upbringing to keep cash lying around, but Stein said the psychiatrist’s testimony “just doesn’t stand up.”

Menendez is the first sitting member of Congress to be charged with conspiracy by a public official to act as a foreign agent.

The senator has maintained his innocence since his initial indictment last year.

In March, he announced that will not seek another term as a Democrat but he left open the possibility of running in November as an independent.

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