Gold bars and Sen. Bob Menendez's curiosity about their price takes central role at bribery trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Prosecutors showed jurors at Sen. Bob Menendez ’s trial on Thursday multiple instances when he researched the value of gold as he tried to help a New Jersey businessman who authorities say bribed him with gold and cash.

The evidence about the Democrat’s online searches was prominently displayed to a New York jury as prosecutors traced the history of his text messages and internet queries as he allegedly tried to aid Fred Dabies, a prominent New Jersey real estate developer who is on trial with him.

The evidence is considered crucial in the government’s effort to prove that Menendez and his wife received gold bars, cash and a luxury car from 2018 to 2022 from three New Jersey businessmen who benefited from favors Menendez allegedly delivered in return.

Menendez, Dabies and another businessman and codefendant, Wael Hana, have pleaded not guilty. His wife, Nadine Menendez, faces trial at a later date after she recovers from breast cancer surgery. She too has pleaded not guilty.

A third businessman pleaded guilty prior to trial and testified against the other defendants before the trial entered its sixth week in Manhattan federal court.

The gold bars found in the home Menendez shared with his wife in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, took a prominent role early in the trial when an FBI agent described a 2022 search of the residence the senator moved into after the couple was married in 2020, two years after they began dating.

The search found gold bars worth more than $100,000 and over $486,000 in cash, some stuffed in the pockets of coats hanging in closets or in shoes and boots. A Mercedes-Benz that prosecutors say was a bribe was parked in the garage.

On Thursday, the topic of gold came up repeatedly as another FBI agent described internet searches Menendez conducted when he researched the price of gold in April 2019, twice in May 2021, again in October 2021, twice in December 2021, once in January 2022 and again in March and May 2022.

Among the searches, Agent Paul Van Wie said, were instances when Menendez researched the worth of a gram, an ounce and a kilo of gold. The agent said a search of Menendez's internet history since 2008 showed that the senator had never searched for gold prices during that span until April 5, 2019.

Defense lawyers have said gold bars found in the home belonged to Nadine Menendez and that she kept the senator in the dark about gifts she accepted when she was strapped for cash.

Prosecutors sought to prove Thursday through emails, text messages and the online searches for the price of gold that Menendez was interested in gold as he allegedly sought to recommend a new federal prosecutor for New Jersey who could help Dabies get a favorable outcome to a criminal case against him.

The online searches also occurred as Menendez allegedly used his international clout to help Dabies secure a $95 million investment from a Qatari investment fund by taking actions favorable to Qatar's government.

Daibes has been credited with the construction of a string of luxury waterfront buildings, known as the “gold coast,” in the New Jersey town of Edgewater.

Prosecutors showed the jury email and text correspondence Thursday reflecting that Menendez introduced Daibes to a member of Qatar's royal family who was a principal in the investment firm and also met with Qatari officials and made public statements supportive of Qatar as the real estate deal was being negotiated.

After the deal was signed in May 2022, prosecutors say, Daibes gave Menendez at least one gold bar.

In the 2022 search of the Menendez home, FBI agents found two 1-kilogram gold bars and nine 1-ounce gold bars with serial numbers showing they had previously been possessed by Daibes, along with about 10 envelopes of cash with tens of thousands of dollars bearing the fingerprints or DNA of Daibes, according to the evidence shown to jurors.

In August 2021, evidence shown to the jury Thursday showed, Menendez used an encrypted messaging application to send Daibes the text of a press release in which he praised the government of Qatar, before texting Daibes: “You might want to send to them. I am just about to release.”

When Menendez was charged last fall, he held the powerful post of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he relinquished after he was charged. He has resisted calls, including from prominent Democrats, that he resign from the Senate.

Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press