New Jersey businessman testifies that Sen. Menendez bragged about alleged bribes

For more than four weeks, Sen. Bob Menendez has been a mostly peripheral figure at his bribery and corruption trial. On Monday, at federal court in Lower Manhattan, the New Jersey Democrat became the main character.

Prosecutors’ star witness, businessman Jose Uribe, told the jury for the first time that Menendez helped drive the wider conspiracy that ensnared the senator; his wife, Nadine Menendez; and two co-defendants.

In his testimony, Uribe, who pleaded guilty before the trial began and is cooperating with prosecutors, described Menendez as a Godfather-like character who lorded his power over others and, by his deeds and demeanor, appeared to many as an all-powerful figure with vast influence in all walks of life.

Menendez, in Uribe’s telling, rarely asked any questions and provided only a blinkered view into his plans and actions. But months after allegedly delivering on the key pieces of the bribery scheme, Menendez, during a 2020 dinner with Uribe, sat back, his hands crossed over his stomach, and reminded the businessman of all he’d done.

“I saved your a** twice. Not once, but twice,” Menendez told him in Spanish, Uribe testified.

Nadine and her adult daughter, who were also at the dinner, had just excused themselves to use the bathroom. Before they returned, the senator bragged that it had not been difficult work, but Uribe said his body language suggested that “he was proud and confident that he got this done.”

Uribe, who first took the stand on Friday, described a series of meetings with Bob and Nadine Menendez as he sought the senator’s help in quashing the prosecution of an associate and a state investigation that he feared would ultimately lead back to his businesses and the close friends who nominally ran them. Those concerns, Uribe said, led him to leverage his relationship with Nadine Menendez – most notably the Mercedes-Benz convertible he purchased for her – into audiences with the senator and, eventually, the interventions that led to the Menendezes being charged with conspiring to accept gold bars, bricks of cash and a swishy car in exchange for an assortment of political and legal favors. (Nadine Menendez, who is being treated for breast cancer, is being tried separately, likely in July.)

Lawyers for Bob Menendez have sought to portray him as an afterthought in the matter. In their opening arguments, they urged the jury to consider the question “Where’s Bob?” – asserting that he was either unaware or not involved in the machinations alleged by prosecutors. It was his then-girlfriend Nadine driving the bus, they said, with the senator evincing only a partial, passive awareness of her actions.

Uribe told a different story.

In one meeting on the patio in Nadine’s backyard in September 2019, the night before Menendez met with New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Uribe said the senator asked him to write down the names of the people and businesses at the heart of Uribe’s “worries.”

In Uribe’s telling, after a brief chat, Menendez called out “mon amour” to Nadine, who was inside the home, while ringing a little bell set up on their backyard table. Nadine emerged with paper and disappeared back inside before Uribe began to write.

The senator did not offer much information in return, Uribe said. The next morning, Uribe texted Nadine – according to phone records – thanking her “for everything you do for me” and saying he was “praying today’s meeting is in GOD’s hand.” Uribe said he did not know, even then, with whom Menendez would be sitting down.

Hours later, though, he received another message from Nadine, this time asking him to meet the senator at Menendez’s New Jersey apartment building. (The couple was not yet married and kept separate residences.) Uribe recalled entering to see Menendez chatting in the lobby with a receptionist. The two then walked toward a quieter corner and began to chat.

“The thing you asked me about, there doesn’t seem to be anything there,” Menendez said, according to Uribe, who took it to mean that, while nothing was formally settled, he should no longer be concerned about a probe into his businesses or associates.

New Jersey businessman Jose Uribe exits federal court in New York City on June 10, 2024. - Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images
New Jersey businessman Jose Uribe exits federal court in New York City on June 10, 2024. - Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Uribe said he left optimistic but unsettled. He had come through for Nadine, buying her a new car after she had totaled her old one in a fatal accident – a detail that has not been disclosed to the jury – and was desperate for her to help him “stop and kill” his looming legal troubles.

“Peace,” as Uribe described it, came in time. About eight weeks later, he received a phone call at his home from a 202 area code – from Washington, DC. Menendez was on the other line, Uribe said, and told him the good news.

“That thing you asked me about, there’s nothing there,” Menendez told him. “I give you your ‘peace.’”

Uribe became emotional as he spoke about the call. His work had come good. His fears were vanquished – all thanks, he said, to Bob Menendez. He texted Nadine, “I got a call and I am a very happy person.”

“GOD bless you and him for ever,” she replied.

Days later, Uribe and an associate met with the couple at a local restaurant. Prosecutors showed the court a picture of the foursome smiling widely with champagne glasses raised – the bubbly had been sent to their table by other diners. One cause for celebration, Uribe said, went unspoken.

Instead, they toasted the engagement of Nadine and Bob, who would get married in 2020.

“It was the right place to be that day,” an emotional Uribe told the court.

Their gatherings slowed when the Covid-19 pandemic hit a few months later. The dinner when Menendez crowed about taking care of Uribe would not happen until August 2020, when they met to eat outside.

Nearly two years would then pass with Uribe keeping in touch with the Menendezes as he tried to finagle a new insurance broker’s license. His first one had been voided as part of a separate criminal probe years earlier. Not much came of those efforts, he said Monday, apart from a dead-end introduction.

Uribe said he learned about the investigation that ultimately led him to plead guilty and testify against the senator in June 2022, when FBI agents turned up at his home, took his cell phone and handed him “subpoenas” for assorted documents and records largely related to his payments on Nadine Menendez’s Mercedes.

Nadine Menendez and Uribe would meet one more time – at a Marriott hotel bar in New Jersey, the same place Uribe and two associates first hatched the plan at the offering of Wael Hana. The Egyptian American businessman – a co-defendant in this case – told them he could parlay his own friendship with Nadine Menendez into assistance from the senator. It would, Hana allegedly said, cost between $200,000 and $250,000.

During their 2022 chat, Nadine Menendez and Uribe shared notes on the federal probe. She asked him, he said, what he planned to tell the FBI about the car payments. Uribe told her he planned to say he was helping a friend and expected to be repaid.

Nadine Menendez approved of the plan, he said. The payments would be retconned as a loan. She mailed his lawyer a check for $21,000, considerably less than what he had spent on the Mercedes.

How, prosecutor Lara Pomerantz asked, did she arrive at that figure?

“No idea,” Uribe said.

It was the last time they spoke.

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