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Menendez defense team blasts prosecution’s star witness as ‘a very good liar’


Menendez defense team blasts prosecution’s star witness as ‘a very good liar’

Jun 11, 2024 | 9:49 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
Menendez defense team blasts prosecution’s star witness as ‘a very good liar’
Jose Uribe has testified that he agreed to make payments for a new Mercedes-Benz for Nadine Menendez in exchange for Sen. Bob Menendez's help in killing a state probe of Uribe's company. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

After Jose Uribe, the star witness in Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial, spent two days detailing how he bribed the three-term Democrat, defense attorneys spent Tuesday painting Uribe as a habitual liar and longtime criminal whose cooperation deal with prosecutors makes his testimony unbelievable.

Uribe, a failed insurance broker, faces 95 years in prison for seven federal crimes he pleaded guilty to in March. But he acknowledged on the stand Tuesday that he agreed to testify against Menendez, the senator’s wife, and co-defendant Wael Hana in hopes of dodging prison altogether.

Menendez attorney Adam Fee and Ricardo Solano Jr., who represents Hana, spent six hours on cross-examination Tuesday working to taint Uribe’s credibility.

You’re a very good liar, aren’t you?” Fee asked Uribe.

This prompted an immediate objection from prosecutors, which Judge Sidney H. Stein sustained.

Solano was up first, asking about Uribe “practicing” his testimony with prosecutors. Uribe told jurors he met prosecutors and investigators 10 to 15 times since December, when he agreed to cooperate with their investigation.

Menendez defense team blasts prosecution’s star witness as ‘a very good liar’
Jose Uribe, left, is the star witness in the corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez that started last month in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York)

“I don’t like the word ‘practicing,’” Uribe responded. “I would say I was preparing for the questions and the answers.”

Fee and Solano reminded jurors Uribe initially lied to prosecutors, telling them the tens of thousands of dollars he spent on a luxury car for Nadine Menendez was a loan she planned to pay back, before he changed his story after signing the cooperation agreement.

He bristled at any suggestion he would lie in court.

“When I took the stand, I took an oath,” he told the jury. “The truth is the truth.”

But Solano and Fee spent the day reminding jurors of Uribe’s long career of lying.

Uribe’s career in the insurance industry should have ended in 2011, when he pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and theft by deception for defrauding customers of his company Inter-America Insurance.

But after he lost his license and shuttered Inter-America, he started another insurance business, Phoenix Risk Management, and installed his son Omar Contreras, and later his daughter’s friend Ana Peguero, as the licensed brokers and firm owners, even though he continued to run it, he testified.

Phoenix was one of five companies Uribe ran, and he put his relatives and friends in charge of most of them, he testified. That allowed him to avoid paying taxes, he agreed under cross-examination.

He also admitted he invented a phony tax preparer and submitted fake income figures to secure a pandemic-era small business loan he didn’t qualify for. He fudged documents to cover his crimes, testimony showed, prompting Fee to call him a “sophisticated liar.”

“The activities are, in fact, crimes, correct?” Solano asked Uribe.

“Yes,” he responded.

Uribe has presented himself during his three days on the stand as a dedicated family man with a strong code of honor. He has testified that he decided to host a fundraiser for Menendez, which raised $50,000, and buy a Mercedes-Benz convertible worth more than $67,000 for Nadine Menendez in exchange for Sen. Menendez pressuring state authorities to “kill and stop all investigation.”

His goal, he has repeated throughout his three days on the stand, was to protect his family — especially Peguero, who he called “my Ana” — from the New Jersey attorney general’s expanding insurance fraud probe.

But Solano and Fee suggested that was just another lie, saying he exposed his family to legal trouble by putting his companies in their names and then committing tax evasion and other crimes.

“Was the real concern about yourself?” Solano said.

Under the cooperation deal, prosecutors won’t investigate or prosecute Uribe further, and neither will the federal Department of Justice’s tax division. Uribe has pleaded guilty to bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and related offenses. His sentencing is scheduled for Friday.

Menendez defense team blasts prosecution’s star witness as ‘a very good liar’
Federal prosecutors say Nadine Menendez received this Mercedes Benz convertible as a bribe from Jose Uribe. (Courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York)

What jurors won’t hear

Some of the points defense attorneys tried to make on cross-examination might have little impact on the trial because Uribe repeatedly professed to have no memory of what they asked about.

At least 80 times Tuesday, he said some variation of “I have no recollection of that.” Jurors are supposed to consider only witnesses’ answers in their deliberations, and not attorneys’ questions or comments.

Uribe told jurors he couldn’t remember how many victims he fleeced in his 2011 insurance fraud case (seven), how much he took from them ($76,819), or how lawsuits against his companies unfolded. Testimony showed that Hana was one of the businessmen whose companies failed after Uribe took their money for insurance premiums but failed to secure policies for them, according to the cross-examination. But Uribe said he didn’t remember that either.

Defense attorneys wanted to tell jurors about Uribe’s past failures to pay child support and credit card bills, as well as his conduct at strip clubs, which Lawrence Lustberg, one of Hana’s defense attorneys, didn’t detail but described as “absolutely antithetical to the family values Mr. Uribe has expressed.”

Such details would undermine his claim that everything he does is for the benefit of his family and show his lying and criminal troubles were “not an isolated incident but continuous conduct,” Lustberg and Solano said.

But Stein refused to allow any of it, calling it prejudicial, personal, and potentially confusing to the jury.

Tuesday’s testimony revealed a few scandalous details, including Fee’s revelation that Menendez had broken off his relationship with Nadine Menendez in December 2018 “because she was causing too much drama.”

Fee has said that Nadine concealed the bribes she’s accused of taking, and asked Uribe if he concealed his criminal history from Menendez for similar reasons — to get what he wanted from one of New Jersey’s most powerful public officials.

“If you had told him these things, he would have stood up and walked out of the room,” Fee said, prompting an objection from prosecutors that Stein sustained.

Uribe is expected to take the stand for a fourth day Wednesday, when Fee will continue his cross-examination. The trial is expected to last into the first week of July.