Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Thursday, July 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

New Jersey’s top prosecutor takes stand in Menendez trial

Philip R. Sellinger, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, testified that he told Bob Menendez he expected to be recused from any involvement with a bank fraud investigation that the powerful Democrat asked him to look into.

MANHATTAN (CN) — New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor testified in Senator Bob Menendez’s bribery trial on Tuesday that he didn’t believe the powerful Garden State politician had improperly conditioned his federal appointment on interference in a pending case against one Menendez’s accused bribe-payers.

New York federal prosecutors have accused Menendez of accepting gold bars from trial co-defendant Fred Daibes, an Edgewater real estate tycoon, in exchange for making efforts to install a favorable U.S. attorney in New Jersey to take the heat off Daibes in an underlying federal bank fraud probe.

During cross-examination on Tuesday morning, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey Philip R. Sellinger testified that he did not perceive Menendez’s request to take a look at an underlying federal prosecution of Daibes as falling outside of his official duties.

“In fact, I didn’t believe he was asking me to do anything,” he testified.

“You didn’t believe he was asking you to put your thumb on scales of justice?” Menendez’s attorney Avi Weitzman asked.

“Correct,” Sellinger replied.

Weitzman also pressed Selinger on whether he was aware that Menendez, the first Hispanic person to win statewide office in New Jersey, was facing political pressure “to name a diverse candidate” as his recommendation for the next New Jersey U.S. Attorney in 2021.

According to the charges in his criminal indictment, Menendez — then the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee — repeatedly Googled the price of a kilogram of gold after Daibes began giving him gold bars to stall the New Jersey prosecution.

Last week, Sellinger testified that Menendez sought to discuss a pending investigation of Daibes with him before recommending him to the post after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

Sellinger recalled that Menendez told him that Daibes had a criminal case and that the senator believed he “was being treated unfairly.”

Sellinger testified that he told Menendez he believed had a potential conflict from his prior representation in a lawsuit that was adverse to Daibes while he was in private practice and that the Justice Department might decide to recuse him from anything involving Daibes as a result.

He recalled that Menendez said he understood, but days later, the senator told him the Biden administration wanted several potential candidates to be short-listed for nomination, and that he’d decided he would no longer recommend Sellinger for the post.

The corruption trial resumed Tuesday after a three-day break caused when Daibes tested positive for Covid-19 during the trial’s fifth week.

During cross-examination on Tuesday, Sellinger recalled conversations with Senator Menendez in 2020, during which the senator vetted him as a potential recommendation to be Biden’s nomination to be the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

He testified that in December 2020, Menendez told him that he was not going to be recommended for the nomination. Ultimately the recommendation went to a different Menendez ally: Hudson County prosecutor Esther Suarez.

Sellinger recalled that Menendez subsequently declined his invitation to speak at a public ceremony celebrating Sellinger’s appointment as U.S. attorney in spring 2022.

He said the senator then told him, “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.”

An FBI search of the Menendez’s wife’s house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, later in 2022 led to the disovery and seizure of over $100,000 in solid gold bars and about $480,000 in cash.

The trial, now in its sixth week, is expected to run through the first week of July.

Follow @jruss_jruss
Categories / Criminal, Government, Politics, Trials

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.