Bob Menendez buoyed by testimony of prosecutor, former adviser in bribery trial

Prosecutors at the trial of Sen. Bob Menendez used the testimony of his former campaign manager on Tuesday to try to link alleged bribes of the Democrat to the appointment of New Jersey’s top prosecutor three years ago.

Michael Soliman, a former top Menendez political adviser, testified immediately after New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, Philip Sellinger, finished two days on the witness stand at the Manhattan federal court trial that is in its sixth week.

Menendez and two New Jersey businessmen are on trial on charges alleging the senator accepted gold bars, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and a luxury car from businessmen from 2018 to 2022 in return for helping them in their business dealings, including by trying to meddle in court cases.

They have pleaded not guilty. A third businessman pleaded guilty and testified against them. Menendez’s wife, Nadine Menendez, has also pleaded not guilty in the case, although her trial has been delayed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer

Sellinger testified last week that Menendez told him that if he recommended that he be appointed as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, he hoped he’d take a look at a criminal case against Fred Daibes, a prominent New Jersey real estate developer, because he believed he “was being treated unfairly.”

Sellinger said he told Menendez the next day that he would have to notify the Justice Department that he might need to be recused from the Daibes case because he had worked on a lawsuit while in private practice that was adverse to Daibes.

Menendez then recommended somebody else for the job, and Soliman testified Tuesday that he was told by a top Menendez aide in December 2020 that the senator and Sellinger “had a falling out.”

Soliman said that after the appointment of the new candidate fell through following a series of negative news articles about her, Sellinger told him that he wanted the senator to know that he checked with the Justice Department and learned that “the issue” that he thought would require his recusal did not after all.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Richenthal asked Soliman if there was any confusion expressed by Menendez about what “the issue” was when he relayed the conversation to the senator.

“No,” Soliman said.

Soliman, who said he did not know what “the issue” was that Sellinger had referenced, also said Menendez did not ask any questions regarding the message Sellinger passed along.

Sellinger, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, was sworn in as U.S. attorney in December 2021 and has held the post ever since.

Sellinger, testifying last week, recalled his conversation with Soliman differently, claiming that he told Soliman exactly what he told the senator: that he expected he might be recused from the Daibes case because of the civil case he had worked on that was adverse to Daibes.

Sellinger said he called Menendez in spring 2022 to invite him to speak at a public ceremony celebrating Sellinger’s appointment as U.S. attorney.

“He said: ‘I’m going to pass,'” Sellinger recalled.

Sellinger said the senator then said: “The only thing worse than not having a relationship with the United States attorney is people thinking you have a relationship with the United States attorney and you don’t.”

Sellinger testified on cross-examination last week and Tuesday in ways favorable to the senator, including saying he never believed Menendez had asked him to do anything improper or unethical.

Buoyed by Sellinger’s testimony on cross-examination, Menendez left the courthouse Tuesday seeming upbeat, saying just before getting in his car: “Sellinger made it very clear. He was asked to do nothing wrong. And he didn’t.”

Daibes, who is on trial with Menendez, contracted COVID last week, forcing a three-day delay in a trial that is now expected to stretch into July. After Wednesday’s holiday, the trial resumes Thursday.

This post was originally published on CBS News

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