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FBI investigator gives jury at Sen. Bob Menendez's trial an inside account of surveillance

NEW YORK (AP) — An investigator provided a New York jury a riveting account on Tuesday of an evening in Washington, D.C., in 2019 when an FBI surveillance team came across Sen. Bob Menendez and his girlfriend at a fancy restaurant.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, who is accused of taking bribes of cash, gold bars and a luxury car in exchange for favors performed for several New Jersey businessmen, arrives at Federal Court, in New York, Monday, June 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Larry Neumeister)

NEW YORK (AP) — An investigator provided a New York jury a riveting account on Tuesday of an evening in Washington, D.C., in 2019 when an FBI surveillance team came across Sen. Bob Menendez and his girlfriend at a fancy restaurant.

The investigator, Terrie Williams-Thompson, told the jury at Menendez’s bribery trial that the team was following another person at the table at Morton's when she overheard Menendez’s future wife, Nadine Arslanian, ask: “What else can the love of my life do for you?”

Williams-Thompson testified she heard the comment while sitting two arm's lengths from the table while posing with another FBI investigator as a married couple on a date. She said they secretly filmed Menendez's table as she strained to hear what she could and even posed for a picture to secretly photograph those at the table.

The testimony provided the jury one of the more interesting segments of testimony at a trial in its fourth week that has featured long stints on the stand by FBI agents and others as hundreds of pieces of evidence from emails to phone recordings to bank records to gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash were shown to the jury.

The cash and gold bars, found by the FBI during a 2022 raid in the home the couple shared in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, has featured prominently in the prosecution's claim that the 70-year-old senator and his wife accepted the valuables, along with a fancy car, in return for aiding three New Jersey businessmen in their business pursuits.

William-Thompson's testimony about the Washington dinner highlights a key facet of the indictment against Menendez, the three businessmen and Nadine Menendez that first brought them to Manhattan federal court last fall to face criminal charges. One businessman has pleaded guilty and will testify against Menendez and two other businessmen who are on trial together. Nadine Menendez is scheduled for a July trial. The two other businessmen and both Menendezes have pleaded not guilty.

According to the indictment, the May 21, 2019, steakhouse dinner included the Menendez couple, fellow defendant Wael Hana and an unidentified Egyptian official hours after they had met in Menendez's Senate office in Washington.

During the office meeting, Hana asked Menendez to assist him in countering efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to oppose the monopoly his company had been granted to certify all meat products shipped from the U.S. to Egypt as complying with religious requirements, the indictment said.

According to testimony from a former agriculture official, Menendez telephoned one day to order him to stand down in his efforts to oppose the monopoly.

Williams-Thompson said the surveillance she conducted at the steakhouse with seven or eight other investigators was part of her job for the last 18 years as an FBI investigative specialist.

She testified that she no longer knows who the subject of the surveillance was that evening beyond that it was “someone from New York” and not the senator.

She said the team leader, a woman posing as an Uber driver, dropped the pair of investigative specialists off in front of the restaurant.

Inside, she said, Williams-Thompson and her fellow investigator, a man, filmed the other table with the aid of a concealed camera. She didn't reveal exactly how it was concealed but said it could be in an ordinary device such as eyeglasses, a tie or a key fob.

She said the volume of conversation at the table in a patio area that was otherwise reasonably quiet got louder as more alcohol was consumed.

“They were eating. They were talking. They were laughing. They were smoking,” Williams-Thompson said of the wine-drinking group that smoked cigarettes and cigars.

Toward the end of the dinner service, she said, was when she heard the senator's future wife ask: “What else can the love of my life do for you?”

On cross-examination, a lawyer for Menendez attacked Williams-Thompson's credibility on recalling the quote, noting that she did not document it anywhere immediately in writing, though she said she was sure she notified someone on her team. Williams-Thompson said that aside from laughter, it was all she heard from her that night.

Asked by assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Pomerantz if she told anyone at the restaurant that she was with the FBI, she responded: “No ma'am. Because we don't want that to get out there at all. ... Don't want to blow our cover.”

Asked if she ate while she was there, Williams-Thompson said: “I sure did. And it was good, too!” The remark touched off laughter in the courtroom.

“That is part of blending in,” the witness said. “You eat? I'm gonna eat.”

Judge Sidney H. Stein interrupted the questioning to tell her: “I hope the FBI paid for your meal.”

“Oh yes, sir, they did,” she responded.

Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press