NEW YORK — A former New Jersey attorney general testified Thursday at Sen. Bob Menendez's bribery trial that the Democrat twice tried to discuss a pending criminal case with him, requests he considered “pretty unprecedented.”

Gurbir Grewal was called as a witness by prosecutors to support their claim that Menendez tried to interfere in a criminal case at the request of one of three New Jersey businessmen who were allegedly paying him bribes including gold bars, hundreds of thousands of dollars and a luxury car.

Menendez, 70, is on trial in Manhattan federal court with two of the businessmen. The three have pleaded not guilty. The third businessman has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify.

Grewal, now head of enforcement for the Securities and Exchange Commission, recalled Menendez first reaching out to him in early 2019, shortly after he'd taken the job as New Jersey's top law enforcement officer.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, June. 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, June. 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
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He testified that a cousin who was close friends with Menendez asked if she could pass along Grewal's personal cellphone number to Menendez and he agreed.

Menendez called late one afternoon, interrupting a meeting, but Grewal said he stepped outside the office to take the call.

After some small talk, Menendez expressed a concern that some state investigators were treating Hispanics in the trucking industry different than workers who were not Hispanic, Grewal said.

Grewal said he asked Menendez if the concern arose from a criminal matter and when he was told that it did, he followed his policy and directed Menendez to have a defense lawyer contact the prosecutors or the judge about any relevant matter.

Former Attorney General of New Jersey Gurbir Grewal leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, June. 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
Former Attorney General of New Jersey Gurbir Grewal leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, June. 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
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He said the 5- to 6-minute phone call ended shortly thereafter without the senator saying any more about it.

Grewal said he did not mention it to any prosecutors in his office because he didn't want anyone working the case to feel pressure or intimidated.

He said he wanted them to make any decisions about their cases “free from anything from the outside.”

The following September, Grewal testified, Menendez requested a meeting in his Newark, New Jersey, office and Grewal went, bringing along another top official, his deputy attorney general.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, June. 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., leaves Manhattan federal court, Thursday, June. 6, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)
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Grewal said he thought the senator wanted to talk about the policies of his office, but Menendez instead again brought up his complaint about the treatment of Hispanics after seeming surprised that he brought someone with him, which Grewal said he commonly did when meeting with lawmakers.

Grewal said he asked if his complaint again pertained to the criminal case he'd referenced in the phone call earlier in the year and Menendez said that it did. Grewal said he repeated his earlier instruction to have the defense lawyers deal with any issues with the judge or prosecutors handling the case.

“The impression I got was that he did not like how the matter was being handled, but he didn’t say how it should be handled,” Grewal testified.

Grewal said the conversation ended soon after he told Menendez: “I cannot talk to you about this.”

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)
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)
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After leaving the meeting, he and the deputy attorney general who accompanied him were standing by the car that would carry them away when his colleague said: “Whoa, that was gross,” Grewal recalled.

On cross-examination, Menendez defense attorney Avi Weitzman elicited from Grewal that the senator was “extremely polite and respectful in all of our interactions.”

When Weitzman asked him if Menendez asked him to look into the matter or threatened to “haul you before Congress,” Grewal chuckled and said no such conversation occurred.

“I wasn't afraid of retribution,” Grewal said, adding that Menendez “just moved on” with small talk when the attorney general shut down the inquiry. “He did not pressure me.”

Still, Grewal said a lawmaker reaching out about a particular ongoing criminal case was “pretty unprecedented in my experience.”

Weitzman elicited from Grewal that a state legislator and the governor's chief of staff had sought to speak about a case while he was attorney general.

As Menendez left the courthouse Thursday, he told a reporter in Spanish: “Advocating for human rights is not a crime.”

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