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In bribery case, Sen. Menendez switches to a defense lawyer quite familiar with gold bars

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Sen. Bob Menendez on indictment: Video
Sen. Bob Menendez offered comments to the public for the first time since he and his wife Nadine Arslanian Menendez were indicted on bribery charges.

Sen. Bob Menendez has switched up his legal team as he prepares to defend himself against an indictment charging him and his wife Nadine Menendez in an alleged bribery scheme that involved payment of cash, gold bars and a Mercedes.

Recent court documents filed in the case indicate that the Chicago-based firm of Winston & Strawn LLP is no longer the counsel of record representing Menendez. The firm has been replaced by high-profile Washington lawyer Robert Luskin and the firm Paul Hastings LLP.

And just as in the Menendez case, gold bars played a prominent role in another high profile case with Luskin as defense lawyer.

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Menendez faces corruption charges brought by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from three businessmen in exchange for helping them enrich themselves and trying to get them or associates out of legal trouble, according to the indictment unsealed on Sept. 22 in New York.

More: Sen. Menendez and his wife indicted on corruption charges

Indictment coverage: This cast of characters has been linked to the Sen. Menendez investigation

Along with envelopes of cash, gold bars and other illicit payoffs, the corruption indictment exposes how Menendez used his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to allegedly aid the government of Egypt and Wael Hana, an Edgewater businessman with a troubled financial past who emigrated from the Arab nation.

Luskin, head of Menendez’s new legal team, represented Stephen Saccoccia, a coin dealer from Cranston, Rhode Island in an early 1990s case. In 1993, Saccoccia was convicted of what prosecutors described as one of the biggest money-laundering operations in the nation on behalf of the Cali cartel.

He received the maximum sentence under mandatory sentencing guidelines — 660 years. 

The court imposed a $136.3 million forfeiture judgment that required Saccoccia and his wife to pay back the full amount they had wired to the drug lords, according to the Providence Journal.

The judge allowed the government to seize other assets up to that amount.

Years after the case was prosecuted, law enforcement continued to look for assets from the Saccoccia operation. In 1997, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Rhode Island, then led by Sheldon Whitehouse — now a U.S. senator — announced law enforcement agents had located gold in the backyard and basement of a home it was able to link to the Saccoccias’ activities.

They found 82 bars of gold and seven bags of gold pellets valued at approximately $2.1 million, the Journal reported.

Whitehouse accused Luskin of “willful blindness” for accepting 45 gold bars worth more than $505,000, as well as Swiss wire transfers of $169,000, for his work on the case.

In 2005, a Washington Post article described Luskin, who was representing Republican political operative Karl Rove at the time in a CIA leaks case, this way: Luskin “wears a gold hoop earring and Euro-hip eyeglasses. He’s buff and bald. (But bald in a good way.) He rides a black Ducati Monster motorcycle, which its maker touts as the bike of choice of ‘top designers’ and ‘Hollywood stars.’ In his office he spins the CDs of antiwar balladeer Steve Earle and ex-punk Paul Westerberg.”

The Post article might provide a clue as to why Menendez has decided to rely on Luskin to fight his bribery charges.

“Luskin knows how to do the sharp lawyering required to wage a strong criminal defense — all the while nudging reporters toward his position, attempting to soften public perception … and getting out his client’s side of the story,” the Post wrote. “Having worked in Washington for a quarter-century, and spending part of the Clinton years as a scandal attorney, Luskin has seen it all before.”

Fred Daibes, meanwhile, the North Jersey developer charged alongside Menendez in the alleged bribery scheme, decided last month to keep his attorney in a separate bank fraud case, despite federal prosecutors warning of a legal conflict of interest.

At a hearing in October, a federal prosecutor said he believed Daibes’ attorney in the bank fraud case, Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., faced a potential conflict because he also represents Hana in the corruption case. Hana, a halal meat exporter, is accused of bribing Menendez to win the senator’s help in getting favorable treatment from Egyptian officials.

Some of the envelopes stuffed with cash that federal agents found in Mendendez’s home contained the fingerprints or DNA of Daibes or his driver, the indictment says. Investigators also discovered more than $100,000 worth of gold bars in the home, which were provided by Hana or Daibes, according to the indictment.

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