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Sen. Menendez’s corruption trial on the verge of getting a jury

REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID
                                U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), arrives at Federal Court, for his bribery trial in connection with an alleged corrupt relationship with three New Jersey businessmen, in New York City.
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REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), arrives at Federal Court, for his bribery trial in connection with an alleged corrupt relationship with three New Jersey businessmen, in New York City.

NEW YORK >> The judge overseeing U.S. Senator Robert Menendez’s corruption trial struggled on Tuesday to find jurors who said they could fairly assess the New Jersey Democrat’s role in what federal prosecutors called a years-long bribery scheme.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein in Manhattan excused 27 prospective jurors from the trial, which he has said could last into July, on top of more than three dozen excused on Monday.

Though many of those remaining said when the judge questioned them as a group that they might not be impartial, about a dozen suggested they could not.

This reflected their alleged bias toward or against law enforcement, or difficulty accepting testimony from cooperating government witnesses who pleaded guilty to crimes, even after Stein called using such witnesses “perfectly legal.”

Menendez, 70, New Jersey’s senior senator, faces 16 criminal charges including bribery, fraud, acting as a foreign agent and obstruction, and is being tried alongside New Jersey businessmen Wael Hana and Fred Daibes.

The senator’s wife Nadine Menendez, 57, will be tried separately on July 8, after her lawyers said she had a serious medical condition that could require a long recovery.

All four defendants have pleaded not guilty. A fifth defendant, insurance broker Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty in March to bribery and fraud and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The Menendezes were accused of accepting several hundred thousands dollars of cash and gold bars, as well as a Mercedes-Benz convertible, in exchange for the senator’s providing political favors, and aid to the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

FBI agents who searched the Menendezes’ home in June 2022 found much of the cash hidden inside clothing, closets and a safe, prosecutors said.

During the group questioning, Stein asked jurors if they knew any of the more than 350 people, including several U.S. senators, whose names might be mentioned during the trial.

He also emphasized the importance to him during his three-decade judicial career of finding fair juries.

“There are many countries where people don’t have a right to have a jury of their peers to sit in judgment of them,” Stein said. “The system will only work if people are fair and honest and impartial.”

CALLS TO RESIGN

Menendez was accused of promising to help Egypt obtain arms sales and other aid, helping Hana obtain a lucrative monopoly on certifying halal meat exports to Egypt, and trying to help Daibes obtain millions of dollars from a Qatari investment fund.

Prosecutors also accused the senator of trying to interfere in a federal criminal case against Daibes in New Jersey, and in state criminal cases involving two of Uribe’s associates.

Menendez, a senator since 2006, has suggested he would try if acquitted to win a fourth full Senate term.

But recent polls of voters in Democratic-leaning New Jersey show overwhelming disapproval of Menendez’s job performance, suggesting that any reelection bid would be a long shot.

Menendez has resisted calls to resign from across the political spectrum, but gave up leadership of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee after his indictment in September.

The senator was also tried in a bribery case in 2017, but that case ended in a mistrial.

Menendez’s lawyers are awaiting a ruling from Stein on whether a psychiatrist can testify that the senator routinely stored cash in his home because of a “fear of scarcity.”

They said this was a response to the Cuban government’s seizing his family’s assets before he was born, and his father’s suicide after Menendez stopped paying his gambling debts.

Democrats and independents who caucus with them hold a 51-49 Senate majority. Republicans hope in November’s election to flip several seats in races that are expected to be close.

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