What did FBI agents find inside a powerful N.J. senator’s home? So. Much. Cash.

What did FBI agents find inside a powerful N.J. senator’s home? So. Much. Cash.

The FBI agents stepped quietly inside U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s modest white house tucked in an upscale neighborhood along New Jersey’s scenic Palisades one morning in June 2022, creeping in through the garage.

They were directed to move discreetly, none of the shock and awe of a pre-dawn raid and perp walk. Nobody was even home.

“We were sensitive that we were searching the home and executing a search warrant of a United States senator,” the FBI agent in charge of the search testified as Menendez’s federal corruption trial got underway this week, revealing a treasure trove of new details in the scandal.

New Jersey’s senior senator, along with his wife, Nadine, were at his apartment in Washington, D.C., a four-hour drive from Englewood Cliffs, even on a good day, with light traffic and U.S. government plates.

An FBI agent showed up at the D.C. apartment, too, and the senator — a guy from Hudson County who has enough experience to know what such visitors portend — did not make them break down any doors.

Menendez gave them the entry code.

It’s not to say the FBI agents weren’t ready for what was inside the split-level the couple shared back in New Jersey when Bob wasn’t busy voting in Congress, or traveling abroad as head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The trouble was counting all the cash. It was everywhere. Locked away in closets, stashed inside designer bags, even stuffed into a pair of Timberland boots.

“I was directed that if I seized the cash, that I needed to count it in place,” Special Agent Aristotelis Kougemitros told the jury.

“So I called in reinforcements.”

Cash and gold seized from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s New Jersey home was entered into evidence in his federal corruption trial last week.SDNY

The bureau’s Manhattan office sent two cash-counting machines to process the piles of 20s, 50s and 100s they had struggled to count by hand, Kougemitros testified.

They later tallied $486,461 in bills. All that on top of the now-infamous 13 gold bars.

The 2022 seizure was part of a complicated bribery case in which prosecutors say the cash, gold and a luxury Mercedes Benz were given to the Menendez couple in exchange for political favors.

Last week marked the first few days in what is expected to be weeks of testimony in the trial of Menendez, a trailblazing Latino lawmaker whose once considerable power in Washington has waned as he fends off his second corruption case.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

“There will be at trial, a full explanation of what is the truth about those issues, a truth that proves I am entirely innocent of the charges.”

— Menendez on his indictment.

His last trial ended in a hung jury in 2017, leaving the senator smarting from scandal but still supported by his fellow Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who endorsed his successful 2018 reelection bid.

Now, Menendez faces losing his seat, which is up for grabs come November after he was tossed from the Democratic ticket following his September indictment.

If convicted, he also faces decades in prison.

Robert Menendez  Bob Menendez  Avi Weitzman

In this courtroom sketch, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, seated far left, looks at his defense attorney Avi Weitzman give his opening statement during his trial Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in New York. Judge Sidney Stein is presiding. (Elizabeth Williams)AP

The senator appeared cheerful most mornings as he strode into the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in Manhattan, where federal prosecutors entered sealed plastic bags full of cash and gold into evidence in front of the jury.

Among the charges were bribery, extortion, fraud and obstruction of justice and violating a law banning public officials from acting as foreign agents.

Twelve jurors and six alternates, a diverse group of New Yorkers, watched as Kougemitros, wearing black nitrile gloves, removed a large drawstring Burberry bag from an evidence box.

What does $100,000 in a sack look like? Somewhere between a really good haul of Halloween candy and a light load of laundry.

The jurors’ eyes went wide.

Menendez has claimed the cash was “for emergencies” and attributed his preference for keeping money out of banks to “intergenerational trauma” related to his family history “facing confiscation in Cuba.”

“Now this may seem old fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years,” he said after his indictment.

Menendez trial

Prosecutors last week entered piles of cash and 13 gold bars into evidence in the federal corruption trial of Sen. Robert Menendez, who is accused along with his wife Nadine of accepting bribes from a trio of New Jersey businessmen.SDNY

Prosecutors have a different explanation: The half-million-dollar hoard was money from Menendez’s side hustle working the levers of power in Washington for his wealthy friends with ties to the governments of Qatar and Egypt.

Menendez, 70, is on trial with two of the New Jersey businessmen accused of bribing him, Fred Daibes and Wael Hana. All three have pleaded not guilty, saying the accusations amounted to “criminalizing friendships.”

A third businessman, Jose Uribe, admitted helping Nadine Menendez buy a Mercedes-Benz to get the senator’s help squashing an unrelated state criminal investigation involving his commercial interests.

He is expected to take the stand against Menendez in the coming weeks.

“He loves gold … There is nothing criminal about being generous.”

— Cesar De Castro, attorney for Fred Daibes, who denies bribing Menendez.

Inside the courtroom last week, jurors passed around plastic evidence bags containing the gold bars — symbols of opulence that also added a certain are-you-kiddin-me feel to commentary of the case, which quickly became comedic fodder.

“These are just my emotional support gold bars,” comedian Jon Stewart suggested as a potential alibi in a “Daily Show” segment devoted to the “not-quite believable ‘Real Housewives’ episode.”

The case has only been overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s hush-money trial just across the street in New York state court, which has drawn many television cameras away from the Menendez spectacle.

Lawyers for the defense sought to downplay the gold, saying it is common for rich people from many cultures to give gold as gifts and keep it in their homes.

“He loves gold,” Cesar De Castro, an attorney for Daibes, said of the Edgewater developer known for glitzy projects along the Hudson River “gold coast.”

“He also likes to gift gold. That will also be clear from the evidence,” De Castro said. “He gives expensive luxury items. He collects watches, there is nothing criminal about that. There is nothing criminal about being generous.”

Menendez codefendants.

New Jersey businessmen Wael Hana, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes were charged with bribing U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez. Uribe has pleaded guilty, while the others stand trial with the senator.NJAM file photos

Call it the rich friend defense: Prosecutors have the difficult task of proving that Menendez took actions as a senator he wouldn’t have otherwise taken in exchange for the money and gifts.

The senator’s legal team says the cash was his own and the other gifts were from longtime friends like Daibes, whom Menendez has known for over 30 years. Attorney Avi Weitzman likened the actions the senator took on behalf of his buddy to “constituent services.”

“Throughout his career, Sen. Menendez tried to help various people and companies located in New Jersey, and you will see documents and hear from witnesses that show he was trying to do that in this case, because that was his job,” Weitzman told jurors in his opening statement.

“That’s what he’s there to do. None of these actions were illegal.”

Among the mountains of evidence in the case is a Google search Menendez made on his phone after returning to the U.S. from a trip to Egypt.

“How much is one kilo of gold worth,” it said.

But the senator’s attorneys say the 13 gold bars seized from the couple’s home belonged to his wife, “a beautiful and tall international woman” from Lebanon who speaks four languages and has a taste for the finer things.

“Bob fell for her,” Weitzman told jurors. “She calls him ‘mon amour de la vie‚’ which is French for ‘the love of my life.’”

Nadine Menendez

Nadine Menendez, wife of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., departs Manhattan Federal Court on Oct. 2, 2023, in New York City.(David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/TNS)

Nadine Menendez, charged alongside her husband, has been absent from the courtroom. Her husband revealed she has breast cancer that will require surgery and radiation treatment, so she will be tried separately.

The gold was hers, Menendez’s attorneys insist, claiming the senator was “kept in the dark” about financial arrangements she made with their wealthy friends.

Prosecutors say the gold came from Daibes and Hana in exchange for the senator’s influence and hours of testimony were spent last week describing in minute detail where each bar was found.

On monitors posted in front of them, the jurors got a virtual real estate tour of the Menendez home, bringing them directly into the couple’s kitchen, bedroom and closets.

The stark lighting bounced off the gilded base of a marble table in the bedroom, atop which sat a smiling picture of the couple. Photos of the pair at their wedding and on vacations with family were also hung throughout the home.

Menendez cash

Envelopes of cash are piled atop the Menendez couple’s bed during a search of their home by the FBI.SDNY

One by one, the FBI agent also identified where all the bags of cash were found.

The bars were in Nadine’s closet, locked behind a deadbolt inside the couple’s bedroom, which was also locked, the FBI agent said. That they had prepared for — a locksmith opened the doors, and an FBI agent cracked a safe inside, which contained cash and one of the bars.

Now maybe you are picturing pallets of gold bricks, but temper those expectations. The FBI seized two one-kilo bars — roughly the size of an iPhone — and 11 one-ounce bars, each a little larger than a domino.

Hana’s attorney called them “mini-bars,” describing them as token gifts common across cultures, including Hana’s native Egypt.

A kilo of gold was worth about $58,000 at the time Menendez allegedly made the search on his phone, and the single-ounce bars can fetch around $2,000, though the price of gold fluctuates.

A key strategy of the Menendez defense will be blaming his wife for any failures to disclose the gifts or anything illegal about her arrangements. The couple wed in 2020 and the senator’s lawyers have emphasized Nadine had owned the house since before they married.

Prosecutors will have to disprove that theory, introducing pictures into evidence showing coats with Menendez’s name emblazoned on them — including the senator’s Congressional Hispanic Caucus jacket — seized in the search.

“Do you see the name Nadine on any of the jackets that had cash in the pockets?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz asked the FBI agent who oversaw the search.

“No,” he said.

Menendez evidence

A U.S. Senate jacket stuffed with cash, a Mercedes convertible and gold bars are among the evidence federal prosecutors seized from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.SDNY

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