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Official testifies Sen. Menendez asked him to ‘look at’ criminal case targeting his friend

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Official testifies Sen. Menendez asked him to ‘look at’ criminal case targeting his friend

Jun 12, 2024 | 7:47 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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Official testifies Sen. Menendez asked him to ‘look at’ criminal case targeting his friend
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U.S. Attorney Philip Sellinger said Sen. Bob Menendez repeatedly griped to him about a federal case against his friend Fred Daibes, above. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey told jurors in Manhattan Wednesday that Sen. Bob Menendez complained to him about the criminal prosecution of his friend and asked him to “look at it carefully.”

Philip Sellinger is the second top enforcement official from New Jersey to testify during Menendez’s corruption trial, which is now in its fifth week, that the senator asked for special treatment in a specific criminal matter. Former state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal testified last week that the three-term Democrat asked him about an insurance fraud investigation threatening to ensnare a friend’s company.

Sellinger told jurors he was a private attorney angling to become New Jersey’s new U.S. attorney at the time of his December 2020 conversation with Menendez in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office.

New Jersey’s senior senator told Sellinger that his friend Fred Daibes “was being treated unfairly,” according to Sellinger.

“Sen. Menendez hoped that if I became U.S. attorney, I would look at it carefully,” Sellinger told jurors.

Daibes’ name didn’t ring any bells, so Sellinger assured the senator he would regard all cases carefully as U.S. attorney, he testified. But he called the three-term Democrat the next day to inform him that he discovered he’d been involved in a 2017 lawsuit against the borough of Edgewater that implicated Daibes, a real estate developer and bank founder there. If he became U.S. attorney, he told Menendez, he’d have to alert his bosses at the Department of Justice about it as a potential conflict of interest and they would decide if he should recuse himself from the case, he testified.

That didn’t end the matter. Sellinger recounted in court several other calls and meetings — by Menendez and his associates — where they brought up the Daibes case.

Sellinger said the senator’s ask was unusual. The U.S. attorney is the top federal law enforcement official in New Jersey, overseeing all operations, including 1,500 criminal and 2,500 civil cases a year, as well as investigations and appeals, Sellinger told jurors. That means the person in that position rarely gets personally involved in specific cases, he added.

Sometime later, Menendez told Sellinger that he wouldn’t suggest President Biden nominate him to be New Jersey’s next U.S. attorney, saying the White House had requested multiple candidates to consider. Menendez instead named Esther Suarez — now Hudson County’s prosecutor — as his pick.

When her appointment later fell through, Sellinger reached back to Menendez to tell him he was still interested, and by December 2021, he had the job. On his first day as U.S. attorney, he reviewed the office’s major cases and alerted his new supervisors of four cases where potential conflicts of interest might warrant his recusal — including Daibes, he testified.

The next week, Sellinger’s bosses ordered him off the Daibes case.

Official testifies Sen. Menendez asked him to ‘look at’ criminal case targeting his friend
U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger (Photo courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s Office)

A friendship ended

Sellinger told jurors he first met Menendez about 20 years ago, when he began supporting his campaign fundraisers. They became so close that Sellinger attended the Menendezes’ October 2020 wedding, and the two couples socialized.

But it didn’t take long after Sellinger’s recusal from Daibes’ case for him learn the senator was irked, testimony showed. Sellinger told jurors he called Menendez in March 2022 to see if he’d speak at the formal ceremony recognizing his appointment.

“He said, ‘I’m going to pass. 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.

Prosecutor Lara Pomerantz asked Sellinger what he thought the senator meant.

“That we no longer had a relationship,” Sellinger responded.

Prosecutors have accused Daibes of giving the Menendezes cash and gold bars in exchange for his help in squashing his criminal troubles. Daibes has long been accused of using money to expand his influence in Edgewater, schemes the State Commission of Investigation revealed last year.

As Wednesday wound to a close, defense attorney Avi Weitzman began his cross-examination. He focused on Sellinger’s reputation and self-perception as someone whose integrity and good name are of paramount importance. Weitzman asked: Had he made those “core values” known to Menendez?

“I never believed him to be asking me to do something unethical or improper,” Sellinger said.

Jose Uribe cross continued

Earlier Wednesday, defense attorneys finished cross-examining Jose Uribe, the failed insurance broker who became the prosecution’s star witness when he agreed to plead guilty and testify against his co-defendants.

Uribe has said he gave Nadine $15,000 for a down payment for a new Mercedes-Benz convertible and paid her monthly $900 payments for almost three years in a “deal” that required her to connect him with the senator, who he expected to “stop and kill all investigation.”

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, at that time, had indicted Uribe’s friend Elvis Parra and Uribe worried investigators’ continuing, expanding probe would reach a company, Phoenix Risk Management, that he was running illicitly after he was barred from the business because of his own 2011 insurance fraud conviction.

Through questioning by defense attorney Adam Fee, Uribe acknowledged that he never mentioned money or the Mercedes to Sen. Menendez, spelled out the terms of his deal with Nadine Menendez to the senator, or discussed details about the senator’s calls and meeting with Grewal.

While Fee spent Tuesday trying to depict Uribe as a chronic liar and criminal, he spent Wednesday morning attacking his memory, accusing Uribe of regular intoxication and Xanax use.

“Sir, have you driven drunk before?” Fee asked Uribe, prompting an objection from prosecutors that Judge Sidney H. Stein sustained.

Uribe denied he was drunk or otherwise incapacitated when he met with Menendez.

“I am not sitting with a U.S. senator to discuss a serious matter when I am intoxicated,” he said.

Wednesday also brought some ping-ponging testimony from prosecutors and defense attorneys about some of the more salacious moments of Uribe’s testimony.

Fee suggested during cross-examination that Uribe made up his “super weird” claim that Menendez rang a little bell to summon Nadine when the men needed paper so Uribe could write down the names of the people and companies he wanted the senator to inquire about.

But Pomerantz showed jurors a text Nadine sent Fred Daibes in August 2019 that read: “I am looking for the perfect bell. I have not found it yet, but I will.”

Earlier, Fee tried to cast doubt on Uribe’s claim that Menendez told him in Spanish during a dinner when Nadine Menendez had disappeared to the bathroom: “I saved your little a** not once but twice.”

Pomerantz then showed jurors a text Menendez sent his wife during that dinner that read: “Can you go to bathroom.”

Also on Wednesday, Stein held a closed-door hearing about Nadine Menendez’s trial date, which had been scheduled for July 8. He pushed it to Aug. 5 but requested additional information from her doctors about the state of her breast cancer, her prognosis, and a projection for when she might be able to assist in her defense in hopes of setting “a more realistic trial date.”