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Wife’s Ex-Boyfriend and Fear of Poverty at Center of Menendez’s Defense

LocalWife’s Ex-Boyfriend and Fear of Poverty at Center of Menendez’s Defense

Senator Robert Menendez’s lawyers have cast him as a man who was duped by his dazzling wife, Nadine Menendez, and unaware of the gold bars and cash she kept in her locked bedroom closet — or the deals she made to get them.

Now, as they prepare to rebut claims that the senator was at the center of a yearslong bribery conspiracy, they are expected to call witnesses who will describe the couple’s tumultuous early relationship, Mr. Menendez’s parents’ history as Cuban refugees and the senator’s habit of storing cash at home.

After seven weeks of trial in Federal District Court in Manhattan, prosecutors plan to rest their case on Friday, paving the way for the defense to begin offering evidence intended to poke holes in the government’s case. Mr. Menendez, 70, and Ms. Menendez, 57, are charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for the senator’s efforts to steer aid to Egypt, prop up an ally’s business monopoly and disrupt criminal investigations on behalf of friends.

The senator is on trial, however, without his wife. A judge postponed Ms. Menendez’s trial after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Ms. Menendez’s sister and the senator’s sister are expected to be the first two witnesses called to the stand in Mr. Menendez’s defense, according to a government letter filed on Thursday and a courtroom exchange after jurors were excused for the day.

There was no mention of the senator’s being called to testify in his own defense, although that could change.

Ms. Menendez’s sister will testify about the on-again, off-again nature of the couple’s early relationship in 2018 and an ex-boyfriend who nearly derailed their courtship for good, one of the senator’s lawyers, Adam Fee, told the judge, Sidney H. Stein.

The senator had broken up with Ms. Menendez in the fall of 2018 as a result of an overlapping relationship she was having with her longtime boyfriend, Doug Anton, during “the heart of the conspiracy alleged” by the government, Mr. Fee told Judge Stein.

Mr. Fee seemed to suggest that he wanted to argue that the senator and Ms. Menendez could not have been in a conspiracy together since their relationship, at least for a time, had ended.

“At the time they are supposed to be acting together to get the senator to betray his country, he is breaking up with her,” Mr. Fee said. “He is telling Nadine: ‘I’m going to cancel the trip we had planned. I want the jewelry I gave you back.’”

Ms. Menendez asked her sister to intervene to broker a resolution, Mr. Fee said. Her sister complied, he said, and sent the senator a message that explained Ms. Menendez was “leaving that guy, she really wants you back, please take her back.”

The couple reconciled some time after Ms. Menendez was involved in a fatal car accident in Bogota, N.J., on Dec. 12, 2018. Ms. Menendez was not tested for drugs or alcohol after the crash, which killed a pedestrian, and she was not charged with wrongdoing.

Evidence introduced during the trial showed that Ms. Menendez called the senator from the accident scene and that they spoke for about three minutes. Weeks later, Mr. Menendez accompanied Ms. Menendez to a towing company’s lot to retrieve items from her car, a company official told The New York Times. The couple got engaged in October 2019 and married a year later.

The jury was not told any details of the accident, only that it occurred and that Ms. Menendez was left without a car — a need that prosecutors say led to one of the first bribes, a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible.

Prosecutors have objected to an apparent plan by Mr. Menendez’s lawyers to introduce evidence tied to Ms. Menendez’s troubled relationship with Mr. Anton, according to the government letter filed Thursday.

Mr. Anton, a lawyer who dated Ms. Menendez for nearly seven years, said any claim that he harmed Ms. Menendez in any way was “ridiculous.”

“Everything she ever made up about me was fake,” he said in an interview.

Judge Stein indicated that he intended to bar the introduction of at least some of the evidence related to their relationship.

“This is not going to be ‘Days of Our Lives’ or some soap opera,” he said.

But the judge agreed that some elements of the senator’s case tied to Mr. Anton could be presented to the jury. For example, a flip phone that Ms. Menendez called her “007” phone was given to her by a friend after she expressed concern that Mr. Anton had access to her iPhone, Mr. Fee said. Mr. Anton said he did not access her phone.

Prosecutors have shown jurors evidence that Mr. Menendez frequently used an iPhone app to track Ms. Menendez’s location, countering defense claims that the couple lived largely separate lives. This was done, Mr. Fee said, out of a concern for her safety because of the former relationship.

Paul M. Monteleoni, a prosecutor, argued that the reason the senator regularly searched for Ms. Menendez’s location was irrelevant.

“He still was watching her so closely that she didn’t have the opportunity to deceive him in the way the defense is attempting to indicate,” Mr. Monteleoni said.

The identity of the witnesses expected to testify on the senator’s behalf and their proposed testimony were among elements of the senator’s defense that were outlined in the government letter that was posted on the online docket Thursday afternoon and then quickly removed.

The Times viewed the letter while it was posted. The court’s daily transcript shows that during a conversation out of the jury’s presence, Mr. Fee asked Judge Stein to have the letter taken down, expressing concern that its public filing, with descriptions of defense witnesses and expected testimony, “will have a chilling effect on these witnesses and others.” The judge agreed.

In the letter, prosecutors say Mr. Menendez’s lawyers have told them the senator’s sister will testify about “her knowledge of Senator Menendez’s personal and family history of storing cash outside of banks and the reason for doing so,” including her own observation of cash he stored in his home and office.

The origins of the cash the F.B.I. found in the couple’s Englewood Cliffs, N.J., home during a court-authorized search in June 2022 has been a heated issue of dispute in the case.

Prosecutors have said the cash was of recent vintage, and part of bribes paid to the couple. But after being charged last September, Mr. Menendez offered what he described as an “old-fashioned” explanation for at least some of the cash. For three decades, he said, he withdrew money weekly from his savings account for “emergencies.” He said he did so “because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba.”

In an opening statement last month, Avi Weitzman, another of Mr. Menendez’s lawyers, said that when the senator’s family fled to the United States from Cuba in the early 1950s, they lost their entire life savings except for some cash that was stored away and hidden in a grandfather clock. “From a young age,” Mr. Weitzman said, “the senator came to learn the value of having cash on hand in your home.”

Judge Stein has already denied a request by Mr. Menendez’s lawyers to have a psychiatrist testify about what they called the senator’s “traumatic experiences in his past associated with cash and finances.” The psychiatrist was to explain that Mr. Menendez’s habit of stockpiling cash was rooted in deep psychological trauma tied to his father’s suicide decades ago after Mr. Menendez decided to discontinue paying off his father’s gambling debts.

In their letter to the judge Thursday, prosecutors said that although they did not object to testimony about Mr. Menendez’s family fleeing Cuba and losing their life savings, the government would object to additional testimony, including what they called “gratuitous details of poverty or alleged emotional trauma.”

Judge Stein did not appear to rule on the government’s request to bar certain testimony about Mr. Menendez’s past, suggesting the parties might try to work it out themselves. But he indicated he would allow testimony that was in line with Mr. Weitzman’s opening statement: “They fled Cuba. He grew up in a tenement. They lost their life savings. That kind of thing,” the judge said.

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