Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democrat, faced serious charges on Friday, accused of accepting substantial bribes, including gold bullion bars, to leverage his influence both domestically and internationally.
A three-count federal indictment unveiled a audacious scheme that unfolded during clandestine dinners, through text messages, and on encrypted calls, much of it focused on increasing U.S. support for Egypt and assisting New Jersey businessmen.
Mr. Menendez’s spouse, Nadine Menendez, is alleged to have acted as an intermediary, relaying messages to American-Egyptian businessman Wael Hana, known for his close ties to Egyptian military and intelligence figures. In one text message to an Egyptian general, Mr. Hana referred to Senator Menendez, who wielded significant influence over military sales, financing, and aid, as “our man.”
In a robust response to the charges, Senator Menendez expressed confidence that the matter would be “successfully resolved once all of the facts are presented.”
The charges filed on Friday paint a picture of a mingling of New Jersey’s rough-and-tumble backroom politics and delicate Middle Eastern security concerns. These allegations represent the latest chapter in a long political career that took Senator Menendez, the child of Cuban immigrants, from the Union City, New Jersey, school board to the hallowed halls of the Senate. His career has been marked by accusations of corruption and an earlier federal indictment that resulted in a hung jury.
These new charges not only jeopardize Mr. Menendez’s considerable political influence but also his personal freedom.
Governor Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a close Democratic ally, called for Senator Menendez’s resignation, a call echoed by numerous political leaders across the state. Senator Menendez, however, rebuffed these demands, asserting in a statement on Friday evening, “I’m not going anywhere.”
In accordance with Senate Democratic rules, Senator Menendez did notify Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York that he would step down as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The indictment goes beyond allegations of corruption related to foreign aid. Senator Menendez is accused of using his position to manipulate criminal investigations involving two other New Jersey businessmen, one of whom had long been a fundraiser for him. In furtherance of this goal, the Senator recommended that President Biden nominate attorney Philip R. Sellinger as the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, believing that he could influence Sellinger’s handling of the fundraiser’s case. However, Sellinger, who ultimately assumed the role, remained unswayed by Senator Menendez’s efforts, according to prosecutors.
Additionally, Senator Menendez stands accused of interfering in an investigation by the New Jersey attorney general’s office by offering “advice and pressure” in an attempt to persuade a senior prosecutor to show leniency in the case of two associates of an individual who gifted Ms. Menendez a Mercedes-Benz convertible. The prosecutor deemed Senator Menendez’s actions “inappropriate” and declined to intervene, as stated in the indictment.
In return for these actions, the indictment alleges that the Senator and his spouse received cash, gold, contributions toward a home mortgage, the luxury car, and other valuable items. The day after a trip to Egypt in 2021, Senator Menendez reportedly conducted an internet search inquiring “how much is one kilo of gold worth.”
During a news conference announcing the charges, Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, contended that Senator Menendez’s actions were intended to benefit a select few.
Williams noted that Senator Menendez’s Senate website explicitly outlined the types of services he would not provide due to their impropriety, including influencing private business matters and interfering in judicial matters and criminal trials.
“Constituent service is part of any legislator’s job – Senator Menendez is no different,” Williams remarked. However, he added, “Behind the scenes, Senator Menendez was doing those things for certain people – the people who were bribing him and his wife.”
Shortly after the news conference, Senator Menendez issued a vehement one-page rebuttal of the charges, attributing them to unidentified “forces behind the scenes” that have consistently attempted to silence him and undermine his political career.
“The excesses of these prosecutors are evident,” he asserted. “They have misrepresented the standard work of a congressional office. Moreover, not content with making false accusations against me, they have attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had prior to our meeting.”
David Schertler, Ms. Menendez’s attorney, affirmed that his client had not violated any laws.
“Mrs. Menendez denies any criminal wrongdoing and will vigorously contest these charges in court,” Mr. Schertler stated.
These charges against Senator Menendez, aged 69, and others come after a lengthy investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors in Manhattan, nearly six years following his previous trial on unrelated corruption allegations, which resulted in a hung jury.
James Smith, who leads the New York FBI office, expressed on Friday that the conduct outlined in the indictment “erodes the public’s trust in our government system and unfairly tarnishes the reputations of honest and dedicated public servants who faithfully carry out their duties every day.”
The businessmen named in the indictment, which was unsealed in Manhattan federal court, include Mr. Hana, a close friend of Ms. Menendez who founded a halal meat certification company; Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer and a fundraiser for Senator Menendez; and Jose Uribe, involved in the trucking and insurance sectors.
The 39-page indictment levels charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud against the Senator, his wife, and the businessmen. It further accuses Senator Menendez and his spouse of conspiracy to commit extortion under the color of official right, signifying their use of his official position to coerce individuals into providing something of value.
In a recent indictment, Ms. Menendez once boasted that her actions would elevate Mr. Hana’s status above that of the Egyptian president.
Back in 2018, when Ms. Menendez, aged 56, and Mr. Hana were in the early stages of their relationship, they orchestrated meetings and dinners with Egyptian officials, with the involvement of Mr. Menendez. During these encounters, the Egyptian officials presented requests related to foreign military sales and financing, among other matters. In exchange for Mr. Menendez’s commitment to facilitate such transactions, the indictment revealed that Mr. Hana promised to employ Ms. Menendez in a role where she would perform minimal or no work.
Following one meeting with Egyptian officials, Mr. Menendez managed to obtain sensitive, nonpublic information about the staffing and nationalities of individuals serving at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt from the State Department. This information was considered highly confidential, and its disclosure could pose security risks. Mr. Menendez shared this information via text with Ms. Menendez, who then forwarded it to Mr. Hana. Subsequently, Mr. Hana transmitted it to an Egyptian official.
Around the same time, during a dinner engagement, Mr. Menendez disclosed additional nonpublic details regarding United States military aid. Shortly afterward, Mr. Hana communicated with another Egyptian official, informing them that the embargo on small arms and ammunition to Egypt had been lifted, enabling sales, including sniper rifles.
The indictment further exposed the close rapport cultivated by Ms. Menendez and Mr. Hana between her husband and Egyptian officials. On one occasion, Mr. Menendez convened a meeting in his Senate office with Ms. Menendez, Mr. Hana, and an Egyptian intelligence officer to address a human rights issue impacting aid to Egypt. Later that evening, the group reconvened for dinner at a Washington steakhouse.
In 2019, Mr. Hana established IS EG Halal, his company. Within a year, the Egyptian government designated it as the sole entity authorized to certify the preparation of halal meat according to Islamic law for imports to Egypt from any part of the world.
When a high-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture voiced concerns about this monopoly’s impact on U.S. interests, Mr. Menendez personally contacted the official. He insisted that the U.S.D.A. cease its opposition to IS EG Halal’s exclusive status as a halal certifier, as detailed in the indictment. The halal company served as a source of revenue for Mr. Hana, allowing him to fulfill the bribe payments he had committed to.
The indictment also highlighted the involvement of Mr. Daibes and Mr. Uribe, the other businessmen facing charges in this case, in providing payments to Ms. Menendez.
In 2019, Ms. Menendez expressed frustration to her husband regarding an expected check that had not arrived. She texted Mr. Menendez, stating, “I am soooooo upset,” and mentioned that Mr. Hana had not left her an envelope. She inquired about whether she should contact Mr. Daibes, to which Mr. Menendez responded, “No, you should not text or email.”
Shortly afterward, Ms. Menendez reached out to Mr. Daibes, leading Mr. Hana’s company to issue a $10,000 check to a consulting firm owned by Ms. Menendez.
During a search of the Menendez’s residence in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and a safe deposit box registered in Ms. Menendez’s name, investigators discovered $550,000 in cash. A significant portion of this money was concealed within clothing, closets, and a safe. Some of the cash was stored in envelopes bearing the fingerprints or DNA of Mr. Daibes or his unidentified driver.
In addition to the cash, investigators located over $100,000 worth of gold bars, with photographs of some of these bars included in the indictment.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Hana commented that, following an initial review of the charges, they found them to be without merit. Mr. Daibes’s lawyer, Tim Donohue, expressed confidence that Mr. Daibes would be completely exonerated from all charges. As of now, there has been no response from Mr. Uribe’s representative.
Senator Menendez, his wife, and their three co-defendants are scheduled to appear in Manhattan federal court soon, as confirmed by Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for the Southern District.
This isn’t Senator Menendez’s first legal encounter. In 2015, he faced bribery charges in New Jersey, involving a purported scheme with a wealthy eye doctor to exchange political favors for gifts valued at nearly $1 million. These gifts included luxurious Caribbean vacations and campaign contributions. His corruption trial in 2017 ended in a mistrial after the jury failed to reach a verdict. The judge later acquitted Mr. Menendez of several charges, and the Justice Department dismissed the rest.
Friday’s indictment reverberated across Washington and New Jersey, with calls for Senator Menendez to step down emerging from members of his own party and Congress. Notably, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a close ally of Mr. Menendez, has remained silent on the allegations and resignation demands.
Senator Menendez is already facing at least one Democratic challenger in his bid for a fourth Senate term, with the Republican mayor of Mendham Borough, N.J., also announcing her intention to compete for the seat. If Senator Menendez were to resign, as Governor Murphy has proposed, the governor would appoint a replacement.
Governor Murphy commented on the charges, stating, “These are serious charges that implicate national security and the integrity of our criminal justice system. The alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state.”