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Menendez Jurors See the Gold Bars at the Heart of a Bribery Case

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An F.B.I. agent, testifying for the government, described his search of Senator Robert Menendez’s house in New Jersey.

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Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, surrounded by law enforcement officers,  arrives at federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday.

Jurors in the corruption trial of Senator Robert Menendez on Thursday were handed plastic bags containing gold bars, allowing them to touch an object at the heart of the government’s case.Credit…Andrew Kelly/Reuters

With the corruption trial of Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey underway on Thursday, a prosecutor handed a juror in the first row of the jury box a plastic bag containing an object at the heart of the government’s case: a gold bar that glinted under the courtroom lights.

One by one, jurors held the bag, turning it over in their hands and feeling its weight before passing it to their neighbor — the jury’s first tangible exposure to evidence prosecutors say was a bribe paid to Mr. Menendez, 70, and his wife.

The prosecutor, Lara Pomerantz, soon handed jurors another bag containing several gold bars. But before she could hand over a third, the judge, Sidney H. Stein, said the jury “has gotten a feel for the weight of gold.”

Mr. Menendez, a Democrat, and his wife, Nadine Menendez, have been charged with accepting gifts collectively worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including gold, cash and a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible, in exchange for the senator’s dispensing of political favors to the governments of Egypt and Qatar and to three New Jersey businessmen.

The senator and two of the businessmen — Wael Hana and Fred Daibes — are being tried together in Manhattan federal court. Ms. Menendez, 57, was to be tried with them, but her trial was postponed after her lawyers said she had a “serious medical condition.”

On Thursday, the senator revealed that Ms. Menendez was being treated for breast cancer and was preparing to undergo a mastectomy and possible radiation treatment.

The third businessman charged in the case, Jose Uribe, has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify as a prosecution witness at the trial.

The trial of Mr. Menendez, Mr. Hana and Mr. Daibes is expected to last more than a month. In an opening statement on Wednesday, Avi Weitzman, a lawyer for the senator, largely pinned blame for the bribery charges on Ms. Menendez, who he said had hidden her past dire finances from her husband and “what she was asking others to give her.”

On Thursday morning, lawyers for the senator’s co-defendants, in their opening statements, portrayed their clients as friends of the couple whose innocent acts of generosity were being unfairly cast by prosecutors as criminal.

“It’s about criminalizing friendships,” said Mr. Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg. Mr. Daibes’s lawyer, César de Castro, said his client had not given anything to the Menendezes to influence them or have the senator engage in any official act on anyone’s behalf.

The presentation of the gold bars came as an F.B.I. special agent, Aristotelis Kougemitros, the government’s first witness, testified about the gold and cash seized during a June 2022 search of the Menendezes’ home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

Agent Kougemitros, who led the search team, said investigators seized $486,461 in cash, 11 one-ounce gold bars and two one-kilogram bars.

Although the agent’s testimony focused on the valuable items found in the search, his account, along with F.B.I. photographs that were taken, offered jurors an uncommonly intimate visit to the Menendezes’ home.

Photograph after photograph was displayed from inside the couple’s bedroom, which had been locked and could only be opened with the help of an F.B.I. locksmith, the agent testified. Inside were photographs of the senator and his wife. There was an exercise machine by their bed; even their en suite bathroom was visible.

A photo of the contents of a closet showed aquamarine lingerie and playful ties, including two that depicted mice eating cheese.

Agent Kougemitros said that, with the locksmith’s help, the team entered two bedroom closets, each secured with deadbolt locks, and found gold bars, jewelry and a safe. Inside the safe were boxes and envelopes of cash. In other parts of the house, agents found more cash: in clothing, a duffel bag, plastic bags and men’s shoes. The Mercedes was parked in a cluttered garage.

During the initial phase of the search, Agent Kougemitros said, agents carefully laid out, counted and photographed the cash. Eventually, he said, the “sheer volume of bills” was too much to count by hand, “so we got cash-counting machines — you’ve probably seen them in movies.”

At one point, the agent stepped off the witness stand and opened a box to show the jury a bag stuffed with cash, which he said was found in the senator’s office and contained $100,000.

Late Thursday, Adam Fee, a lawyer for the senator, raised questions during cross-examination about whether the senator even had access to the bedroom closet where the safe and gold had been found. He focused on the location of a blue blazer that the agent said had been hanging inside the closet and was linked to the senator.

Mr. Fee zoomed in on photographs that he said made it clear the blazer was hanging on an adjacent door outside of the closet.

“Do you want to change that testimony?” he asked the agent. He did not change his account.

The cross-examination was in line with the defense strategy of suggesting Ms. Menendez had secrets the senator was not privy to. On Wednesday, in Mr. Weitzman’s opening statement, he hammered home that point, saying the senator did not have a key to the closet nor did he know gold was kept there.

“It is Nadine’s closet,” he said. “In fact, when you look inside the closet, you will see that it is filled with all of Nadine’s clothing. Women’s clothing.”

Tracey Tully contributed reporting.

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