NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey businessman testified this week at U.S. Senator Bob Menendez's corruption trial that the lawmaker claimed to have "saved" the insurance broker, who bought Menendez's wife a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz, from criminal probes.

Star prosecution witness Jose Uribe told jurors he bribed Menendez by buying a car for the senator's then-girlfriend Nadine in 2019. Uribe said Nadine Menendez, who married Bob Menendez in 2020, had previously assured him she would relay Uribe's concerns about two insurance fraud probes to the senator.

During dinner the following year at a New Jersey restaurant called Segovia, Uribe said Menendez told him he found the "right people to speak to" - without specifying who.   

"He said, 'I saved your ass twice - not once, but twice'," Uribe testified on Monday.

Menendez, 70, a three-term Democratic Senator running for re-election this year as an independent, has pleaded not guilty to 16 criminal charges including bribery, fraud, acting as a foreign agent and obstruction. 

The car purchase was among hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes - which also included cash, mortgage payments and gold bars - that federal prosecutors in Manhattan say Menendez and his wife accepted in exchange for political favors and aiding the governments of Egypt and Qatar. 

Uribe pleaded guilty this year to fraud and bribery charges and is cooperating with prosecutors. He testified that he gave Nadine Menendez $15,000 in cash for her car down payment during a meeting in a restaurant parking lot in March 2019, and made monthly payments for the vehicle until the FBI asked him about them in 2022.

Earlier in the trial, Menendez's lawyers blamed his wife for concealing her financial dealings from him. 

In a potential boost for his defense, Uribe testified that he never discussed the car payments directly with Menendez.

"I did not talk to Mr. Menendez about a bribe," Uribe said on Tuesday during cross-examination.

But under questioning from prosecutor Lara Pomerantz, Uribe said Nadine Menendez never asked him to keep the payments a secret from the senator, and said he had no reason to believe Bob Menendez did not know about them.

Uribe testified that he told Menendez the names of the people and companies close to him being investigated during a meeting in the senator's backyard on Sept. 5, 2019. He said Menendez wrote down the names on a sheet of paper brought to him by Nadine, whom he had summoned by ringing a bell and yelling, "mon amour" - French for "my love."  

Nadine Menendez has pleaded not guilty. Her trial was postponed to July because she is being treated for breast cancer. Her husband's trial could last through June.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)

By Luc Cohen