Sen. Bob Menendez's defense begins with sister testifying about family tradition of storing cash

NEW YORK (AP) — Sen. Bob Menendez's sister came to her brother’s defense Monday, testifying at the start of the defense presentation at his bribery trial that she wasn't surprised to learn that the Democrat stored cash at home because “it's a Cuban thing.”

Caridad Gonzalez, 80, was called by Menendez's lawyers to support their argument that hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash found in the Menendez's residence during a 2022 raid was not unusual for a man whose parents fled Cuba in 1951 with only the cash hidden at home.

“It's normal. It's a Cuban thing,” she said when she was asked for her reaction to Menendez directing her to pull $500 in $100 bills from a boot-sized box in a closet of his daughter's bedroom in the 1980s when she worked for him as a legal secretary.

She testified that everyone who left Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s kept cash at home because “they were afraid of losing what they worked so hard for because, in Cuba, they took everything away from you.”

Prosecutors say more than $486,000 in cash, over $100,000 in gold bars and a luxury car found at the Menendez home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, during the 2022 raid were bribe proceeds.

Menendez, 70, was born in Manhattan and raised in the New Jersey cities of Hoboken and Union City before practicing as a lawyer and launching his political career, Gonzalez said.

He has pleaded not guilty to bribery, fraud, extortion, obstruction of justice and acting as a foreign agent of Egypt.

He is on trial with two New Jersey businessmen who pleaded not guilty after they were accused of paying him bribes to get favors that would aid them in their business and investment pursuits. A third businessman pleaded guilty and testified against his codefendants.

Menendez's wife, Nadine, has pleaded not guilty to charges in the case, although her trial has been postponed while she recovers from breast cancer surgery.

During her testimony, Gonzalez told the dramatic story of her family's exit from Cuba, saying they had a comfortable existence that included a chauffeur and enabled them to become the first family in their neighborhood to get a television before a competitor of her father's tie and bow tie business used his influence to disrupt their life.

She said the man wanted her father to close his business and work for him and enlisted four police officers and two government officials to ransack their home one day.

She said her father stored his cash in a secret compartment of a grandfather clock that went undiscovered during the raid.

Once the family moved to America and the future senator was born, the story of their escape and the importance of the cash became a topic told over dinner as her father recounted Cuba's history, she said.

“Daddy always said: ‘Don’t trust the banks. If you trust the banks, you never know what can happen. So you must always have money at home,’” she recalled.

She said other members of her family stored cash at home too, including an aunt whose home burned down without destroying the $60,000 in cash she had stored in the basement.

Later Monday, a sister of Menendez's wife distanced the senator from his wife's belongings, including gold and jewelry, and said her sister had not divulged her financial troubles to her, except to once ask if she would cosign on a financial loan after she defaulted on her house payments.

Menendez's lawyers say the senator's wife kept him in the dark about her money problems and help she got from businessmen to solve them.