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Top federal prosecutor in New Jersey tells jury Sen. Menendez never pressured him

By Gregory Krieg and Sabrina Souza, CNN

(CNN) — A top federal prosecutor handed Sen. Bob Menendez a lifeline at the New Jersey Democrat’s corruption trial Tuesday, telling the court during cross examination that Menendez never asked or pressured him to act improperly on behalf of a political ally.

Philip Sellinger, now the US attorney for the District of New Jersey, said that in late 2020, he went to Menendez hoping for the senator’s support in his bid to be nominated to the post. During the conversation, Sellinger testified, Menendez mentioned that Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer and co-defendant in the case, “was being treated unfairly” by prosecutors who had indicted him on bank fraud charges.

“Sen. Menendez hoped that if I became US attorney, that I would look at (the Daibes case) carefully,” Sellinger said.

That testimony came up again Tuesday when Menendez attorney Avi Weitzman pressed Sellinger on the nature of that interaction.

“I did not believe that (Menendez) was asking me to do anything other than my official duty,” Sellinger, a longtime friend and political supporter of Menendez, told the court.  “I didn’t believe he was asking me to do anything.”

At that, Weitzman asked Sellinger if it was “fair to say that he didn’t ask you to put your thumb on the scales of justice?”

Sellinger nodded in agreement.

Now in its sixth week, the trial has shifted its focus from allegations that Menendez, along with his wife, Nadine, accepted bribes from a New Jersey businessman to charges that the senator was part of a corrupt deal involving Daibes and the government of Qatar.

The trial resumed Tuesday following a three-day delay after Daibes tested positive for Covid-19 last week.

The Menendezes, Daibes and Egyptian American businessman Wael Hana are accused of engineering a complex and multifaceted bribery scheme. All four have pleaded not guilty.

Nadine Menendez will be tried separately this summer. A fifth alleged co-conspirator, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty and testified for the government as a cooperating witness.

Sellinger was not initially recommended by Bob Menendez for the US attorney nomination, a decision prosecutors suggest was tied to his unwillingness to entertain the senator’s concerns about the Daibes case. Sellinger testified last week that he told Menendez he would have to recuse himself from any issues relating to Daibes because of a past legal entanglement with the developer.

Former Menendez adviser Michael Soliman described the behind-the-scenes push for an alternative to Sellinger in his testimony Tuesday. Ultimately, Soliman said, Menendez decided to recommend then-Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez to the White House. But that choice faced harsh and immediate blowback centered on Suarez’s handling of a rape accusation a volunteer for Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s 2017 campaign made against Murphy staffer Al Alvarez. Suarez did not bring charges against Alvarez, whom she had known for more than a decade.

A subsequent probe by then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal found that Suarez had not acted inappropriately. (Grewal testified earlier in the trial that Menendez tried to meddle in a separate case, although he too said under cross-examination that the senator did not ask him to put his thumb on the scales of justice.)

Soliman described to the court in excruciating detail his work to fend off critical press reports about Suarez and manage the public perception of Menendez, who was coming under fire for backing her. After a few ham-handed attempts by Suarez to defend herself to local media outlets and, eventually, the Biden administration’s refusal to nominate her, Solimon said he and Menendez went searching for a “Plan B.”

Around that point, in the spring or summer of 2021, Solimon said he had another conversation with Sellinger. This time, Sellinger told Solimon that he would not, after all, need to recuse himself from the Daibes case if he was nominated and confirmed. Sellinger, though, was having difficulty getting an audience with Menendez, so he passed the message along to Solimon, he testified.

“If you call Sellinger,” Solimon said he told Menendez after the meeting, “you’ll be comfortable with what he says.”

With Suarez’s chances sunk, Menendez recommended Sellinger for the job he had wanted all along. The White House nominated Sellinger, who was confirmed and took office in December 2021. But in an about-face, Sellinger did recuse himself from the Daibes case.

Solimon told the court that Menendez asked him to find out why Sellinger changed his mind, describing the senator as “inquisitive” and “confused” but not angry when told of the decision. Solimon told Menendez he would contact Sellinger, he testified, but never did.

Sellinger and Solimon would, however, eventually get together for a meal. But before they could sit down, Solimon recalled, Sellinger warned him against bringing up any specific, ongoing criminal case, telling him he would have to report anything of the sort to the Justice Department. Solimon said he never raised the Daibes case.

Menendez, after being told about the interaction, expressed some regret, Solimon said.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he told his close aide, then dropped it.

Menendez, though, remained frosty toward Sellinger, who testified that the senator rejected an invitation to his investiture ceremony.

“I’m going to pass,” Menendez said, according to Sellinger, adding: “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.”

Prosecutors said in court Tuesday morning that they plan to rest their case on June 25. Defense lawyers said they hope to rest their case in time for the jury to be charged by the week of July 8.

There is no court Wednesday for the Juneteenth holiday, and the trial will resume Thursday.

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