USA

Menendez Jurors Hear Audio and See Texts From Seized Phones

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

On Jan. 31, 2018, the day Senator Robert Menendez was formally cleared of bribery charges that had dogged him for nearly three years in New Jersey, he got a text from Nadine Arslanian, a woman he would soon begin to date and later marry.

“Now re-election!!!!” Ms. Arslanian wrote.

“Yes!” Mr. Menendez replied before asking, “Are you around on Friday?”

She was. After a dinner date at a New Jersey restaurant, it was Ms. Arslanian’s turn to send a text with a question: “What is your international position?”

Mr. Menendez, 70, responded that he was the “ranking member” on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — “which means senior Democrat.”

The text exchanges, along with emails and recordings of voice mail messages and other exhibits, were part of hours of evidence that federal prosecutors presented on Tuesday, in the third week of Mr. Menendez’s corruption trial in Manhattan.

Prosecutors used the volley of communications to begin to lay out an origin story of not only a romantic relationship but also what they claim was a burgeoning, five-year bribery conspiracy.

The presentation, in which an F.B.I. agent testified about communications listed in a detailed evidence chart, was necessarily one-sided, with prosecutors offering jurors the beginning of a chronological outline of their case.

At one point, out of the presence of the jury, Avi Weitzman, a lawyer for Mr. Menendez, objected that the government presentation resembled a “mini-summation” — the kind of argument typically delivered at the end of a trial. The senator’s lawyers, who declined to comment Monday, may cross-examine the agent after he completes his testimony for the government.

The presentation served to introduce jurors to Nadine Menendez, who married the senator in October 2020 and is the only key player in the alleged bribery conspiracy whom they are likely not to see in person. Her voice echoed in court as prosecutors played audio recordings of phone messages and her beaming smile flashed on monitors in the jury box.

Ms. Menendez, 57, was charged last year with her husband. But the judge, Sidney H. Stein, postponed her trial after her lawyers disclosed that she had been diagnosed with a serious illness and needed immediate treatment. Mr. Menendez has since said that she had breast cancer and would undergo a mastectomy and possible radiation therapy.

A federal indictment accuses the couple of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including cash, gold bullion and a luxury car, in exchange for the senator’s willingness to meddle in criminal prosecutions in New Jersey and to steer aid and weapons to Egypt.

Mr. Menendez is being tried with two New Jersey businessmen, Wael Hana and Fred Daibes, in Federal District Court. The senator, his wife and the two businessmen have all pleaded not guilty.

Much of Mr. Menendez’s defense has hinged on blaming his wife. The senator’s lawyers have said he had no key to his wife’s locked closet where investigators found bars of gold and cash-stuffed envelopes. The couple maintained separate bank accounts and cellphone plans, and spent much of the week apart when he was in Washington.

“She kept things from him,” Mr. Weitzman said in his opening statement. “She kept him in the dark on what she was asking others to give her.”

Ms. Menendez’s lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The first text that prosecutors displayed for the jury was dated Dec. 31, 2017, the day before the senator’s 64th birthday.

“I would like to take you out to lunch for your birthday,” Ms. Menendez wrote, adding, “I am looking forward to catching up.”

At first, the senator appeared reluctant, writing, “I don’t want to interfere with your boyfriend.”

But within five months, Ms. Menendez was calling him the “love of my life” in a message where she asked him for a favor that would later play a central role in their indictment.

On May 28, 2018, she forwarded a draft of a message sent to her by Mr. Hana, her friend who had moved to the United States from Egypt and who, according to trial testimony, maintained close relationships with Egyptian intelligence officials.

“Please could you fix this letter and send it back,” she asked in an email sent to the senator’s nongovernmental email account.

“Thank you my love very very very very much,” she added, attaching a heart emoji.

The senator then proceeded to craft a letter from Egyptian officials who were lobbying other U.S. senators to release $300 million in additional aid, according to the indictment.

Ms. Menendez forwarded the edited draft to Mr. Hana.

Jurors were shown both versions of the letter.

The messages vividly depict Ms. Menendez as an admirer of the senator and a reliable go-between. Messages she got from Mr. Menendez were rapidly relayed to Mr. Hana — and vice versa, according to the records introduced on Tuesday.

In one case, she spoke by phone to Mr. Menendez for 12 minutes. Within two minutes of hanging up with the senator, she texted Mr. Hana: “He said he’s waiting for an answer. As soon as he gets it he will call me.”

It was unclear on Tuesday what she was waiting to hear from the senator, but she did have something to offer Mr. Hana, who had founded a halal meat certification company in New Jersey that the next year won a lucrative monopoly with the government of Egypt.

“He sent me this information about the American Embassy in Egypt,” she told Mr. Hana.

She included the number of Americans and Egyptian employees at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Prosecutors, in the indictment, noted that the information was not classified but was “deemed highly sensitive.” During the first week of the trial, however, Mr. Menendez’s lawyers showed jurors that the data was contained in government audits that were publicly available.

Prosecutors showed on Tuesday that Mr. Menendez had asked a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member to dig up the data, according to emails presented in court.

“Any idea how many Americans posted to the embassy?” the staff member asked a colleague. “Don’t ask why I’m asking.”

The colleague responded, “I would have to ask and then someone is going to ask why.”

The staff member’s reply was succinct: “Menendez is asking.”