Menendez defense tries to undercut ‘super weird’ story about a bell and his wife

NEW YORK — Sen. Bob Menendez’s legal team tried Wednesday to unring a bell — literally.

The government’s star witness had testified in the trial that Menendez used a bell to summon his wife to help in a conversation that involved bribery. Menendez’s defense attorney asked repeated questions about the bell, trying to fight back against the damning account.

The witness, Jose Uribe, a New Jersey trucking and insurance industry figure, has pleaded guilty to bribing the senator and his wife, Nadine, in order to disrupt a state investigation circling his business. Nadine Menendez will stand trial separately following a cancer diagnosis just before this trial.

Uribe told jurors earlier this week about the September 2019 meeting with the senator in Nadine’s backyard.

Uribe said the senator called out “mon amour” and rang a little bell that summoned his then-girlfriend from her house. After that, Uribe said she brought out a piece of paper that Uribe used to write down the names of the people he wanted the senator to disrupt an investigation into.

Beyond a detailed recollection from a man who has admitted to bribing the Menendezes, the bell also stood out in a trial that has turned in many ways on the relationship — sometimes strained and perhaps even strange — between Bob and Nadine.

Menendez attorney Adam Fee pulled out all the stops to try to undermine the story. For instance, Fee pointed out Uribe had stopped at a bar before the meeting, which Uribe admitted. He said Uribe had been known to use Xanax without a prescription, which Uribe admitted. Fee also got Uribe to admit he wasn’t sure if Nadine brought out the paper immediately or she came out and then went back inside to get the paper.

And Fee — saying what most people who have heard about the bell might be thinking — asked Uribe if he had shared the “super weird” incident with anybody before Uribe told the story to government authorities.

Fee, apparently using notes from government interviews of Uribe that have not been made public, also suggested that the FBI and prosecutors may have challenged Uribe on the bell story and told Uribe it would be “very rare” for someone to use a bell on a table to call someone.

But Uribe stood by his story.

Then, after Uribe left the stand on Wednesday after several days of testimony, government prosecutors called a paralegal to read two text messages investigators obtained during their multi-year investigation of the Menendezes.

In one of them, sent by Nadine weeks before the backyard incident Uribe described, she texts someone that she was “looking for the perfect bell.”

The prosecutor then sat down.

All Fee could do on cross examination was ask the witness — who otherwise did not appear to have extensive knowledge of the case — if she knew about a collection of “antique Greek bells that don’t ring” that Nadine apparently kept at her home.