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Sen. Bob Menendez from New Jersey goes on trial on corruption charges

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In September, Robert Menendez, the powerful Democratic senator from New Jersey, was indicted on federal corruption charges. Today, Menendez goes on trial in federal court in Manhattan, and NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is headed there to cover the trial. But before he heads over, we've got him in the studio to walk us through this case. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello there.

FADEL: So first stop, what exactly is Menendez charged with?

LUCAS: So he was initially indicted along with his wife, Nadine, and three New Jersey businessmen. Those are the ones who prosecutors say were providing the bribes. Menendez faces 16 counts in all in his trial. They include bribery, public official acting as a foreign agent, obstruction of justice, honest services wire fraud. There are a whole bunch more of them. Two of the New Jersey businessmen are Menendez's co-defendants in this trial. The third businessman who was originally charged - he pleaded guilty earlier this year. He's been cooperating with prosecutors. Menendez's wife, meanwhile - she is scheduled to face trial separately this summer.

FADEL: A lot has happened since this case was first brought. Ryan, if you could just say what prosecutors say the case is all about.

LUCAS: Right. Prosecutors say that Menendez and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from these three businessmen. And in return, prosecutors say that Menendez used his office, his position as a U.S. senator, to protect and enrich the businessmen and to take actions to benefit the governments of both Egypt and Qatar. The indictment says, for example, on the domestic front, that Menendez tried to intervene with state and federal officials investigating both the co-defendant and an associate to protect them from prosecution.

FADEL: So I want to go back to what you said about Menendez helping Egypt and Qatar. I mean, is he accused of acting on behalf of their governments?

LUCAS: It's important to preface all of this by saying that when these alleged bribes were happening, Menendez was the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. So he...

FADEL: Right.

LUCAS: ...Held a position of significant influence. Now, one of his co-defendants is an Egyptian American businessman. The indictment says, he and Menendez's wife introduced the senator to Egyptian intelligence and military officials. They set up a series of meetings. That ultimately led, according to prosecutors, to Menendez providing sensitive U.S. government information to Egypt and to taking actions that secretly aided the Egyptian government. Now, Menendez also allegedly pressured a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to try to protect the Egyptian American's business, which was a monopoly on Halal certification for U.S. food exports to Egypt. That was a very lucrative business. Prosecutors say some of the proceeds were used to pay Menendez bribes. Now, on the Qatar bit, prosecutors say that Menendez was using his influence as a senator to help one of the other businessmen get a multimillion-dollar deal with a Qatari investment fund.

FADEL: I think the thing a lot of people remember - at least, what I remember - about this case is that gold bars were lying around Menendez's house. I mean, where does this come into the prosecution's case?

LUCAS: Yeah, the gold bars got a lot of attention. Those were found by FBI agents at Menendez's home in New Jersey. The indictment says some of the gold bars were stamped with serial numbers that indicated that they'd previously been owned by one of the New Jersey businessmen. But FBI agents also found around half a million dollars in cash at Menendez's home. Some of it was in envelopes that prosecutors say had a co-defendant's fingerprints on them.

FADEL: Do we know what Menendez's defense is going to be against these charges?

LUCAS: Well, he's, from the beginning, professed his innocence. He said he's being targeted because he's Latino, and he's argued that his actions were all just part of normal legislative work. On the cash question, he said that he routinely withdrew large amounts of cash from the bank to keep it home. He said it's a habit that he learned from his parents' experience in Cuba, where the government, of course, confiscated property. Ultimately, his fate is going to be decided by a jury in Manhattan. Jury selection begins today, and the trial could last up to two months.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas, who is headed to cover this trial today. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.