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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Menendez lawyer fixates on cooperator’s memory of senator ringing ‘a little bell’ to summon wife

Cooperating witness Jose Uribe finished his corruption trial testimony Wednesday afternoon after four days on the stand detailing his bribery agreement with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A defense lawyer for Bob Menendez was preoccupied Wednesday morning with his co-defendant’s recollection that the senator rang a small bell to summon his wife outside during a backyard meeting to discuss terms of a purported bribery deal in September 2019.

The 70-year-old senator is standing trial on sixteen counts of federal bribery charges that he conspired for years with his wife, Nadine, to repeatedly accept bribes of gold bars, cash and luxury gifts from wealthy businessmen — co-defendants Jose Uribe, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes — in exchange for legislative favors while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

According to prosecutors, one leg of the bribery deal hinged on Uribe buying a new Mercedes-Benz convertible for Nadine Menendez in exchange for the senator exercising his power and influence to stop state criminal investigations that he feared would intrude into his trucking and insurance companies.

Uribe, who pleaded guilty in March to bribery and obstruction charges, testified last week he joined the New Jersey senator one-on-one for cigars and cognac in the back patio of Nadine Menendez's Englewood Cliffs home to discuss the specific targets of those investigations when Bob Menendez rang a little bell sitting on the patio table and called out for his then-girlfriend as “mon amour,” using the French word for "my love."

“Was it bigger than my fist or smaller,” attorney Adam Fee barked during the defense’s cross-examination of Uribe. “Why don’t you hold up your first,” he asked before U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein intervened with the increasingly aggressive line of questioning about the bell.

“His recollection of the size of the little bell is important?” the Clinton-appointed judge asked incredulously. “OK, proceed and lower your voice,” he advised Fee.

“When you left that night, you did not send a text message to Wael Hana, saying ‘It was super weird when Senator Menendez rang a little bell to summon Nadine,'" Fee asked Uribe. “Do you ever remember a prosecutor or an FBI agent challenging you about the little bell,” he later asked.

Earlier in the trial, Uribe testified that Menendez promised at that September 2019 meeting that he would “look into it,” after Uribe asked Menendez for his assistance in extinguishing an insurance fraud investigation on behalf of a trucking business associate.

Nadine Menendez was called outside to the back patio, Uribe testified, to bring a piece of paper for him to write down the names of the targets of the investigation.

Later during cross-examination on Wednesday, Fee called back to the bell debacle.

"No recollection of him ringing a little bell during this meeting," he interjected during a line of questioning about subsequent meetings between Menendez and Uribe at a New Jersey restaurant.

“The little bell is on the patio, it’s not at the reception desk,” Stein said, sustaining an objection over the defense questioning returning back to the small bell.  

Federal prosecutors say they found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in a jacket and two gold kilogram bars during a search of the New Jersey home of Sen. Bob Menendez. (Department of Justice image via Courthouse News)

On Monday, Uribe testified that he paid the $15,000 down payment for Nadine Menendez’s 2019 Mercedes-Benz convertible and then handled the monthly car payments from May 2019 until June 2022, when FBI agents showed up at his home and seized his cell phones as part of a federal investigation.

During cross-examination, Fee challenged the credibility of Uribe's memory due to heavy drinking and daily Xanax use at the time of the purported bribery arrangement.

The topic of the bell resurfaced during the testimony of the following prosecution witness, a paralegal for the U.S. Attorney’s Office who entered into evidence text messages from Nadine telling Bob Menendez that she was “looking for the perfect bell,” five days before the backyard meeting with Uribe in 2019.

Fee asked the paralegal if she was aware of “a collection of antique Greek bells that do not ring” at Nadine Menendez's Englewood Cliffs home.

The trial, now in its fifth week, is expected to run through the first week of July.

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Categories / Criminal, Government, Politics, Trials

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