U.S. prosecutors on Friday charged powerful Senator
and his wife with bribery over their relationship with New Jersey businessmen, which could complicate Democrats’ efforts to keep their slim majority in the U.S. Senate in next year’s elections.
The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan accused the defendants of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using Menendez’s power and influence as New Jersey’s senior senator to seek to protect and enrich the businessmen and benefit the government of Egypt.
Menendez, the chair of the influential U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has been an important ally to fellow Democrat Joe Biden as the president has sought to reassert U.S. influence on the world stage, rally support for congressional aid to Ukraine, and push back against a rising China.
The indictment contained an image of gold bars that investigators seized from Menendez’s home, as well as envelopes stuffed with cash found inside jackets bearing Menendez’s name and hanging in his closet. Prosecutors said they found more than $480,000 in cash in his home.
Prosecutors said that in addition to cash and gold, the bribes also included payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a job with minimal requirements and a luxury vehicle.
“This investigation is very much ongoing,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, said at a press conference. “We are not done. And I want to encourage anyone with information to come forward and to come forward quickly.”
Menendez in a statement said prosecutors mischaracterized routine legislative work.
“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” Menendez said. “The facts are not as presented.”
A lawyer for Nadine Menendez, who has been married to the senator since 2020, said she denied wrongdoing and would “vigorously defend” against the allegations in court.
The investigation marks the third time Menendez has been investigated by federal prosecutors, but he has never been convicted.
The senator and his wife face three criminal counts each: conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.
Menendez has said he plans to seek re-election next year, and an investigation could complicate Democrats’ effort to expand their slim 51-49 seat majority in the 100-member Senate.
NBC reported that Menendez would step down as chair of the foreign relations committee, but not from the Senate, during the case, citing a person familiar with the matter. Menendez also stepped down temporarily during a previous corruption probe prosecutors ultimately dropped.
The senator and his four co-defendants are expected to appear in Manhattan federal court on Sept. 27.
Prosecutors are seeking to have Menendez forfeit assets including his New Jersey home, a 2019 Mercedes-Benz, and about $566,000 in cash, gold bars, and funds from a bank account.
BUSINESSMEN ALSO CHARGED
The businessmen – Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, and Fred Daibes – were also charged in the scheme.
“We are still reviewing the charges but based upon our initial review, they have absolutely no merit,” said a statement from a spokesperson for Hana.
Lawyers for Uribe and Daibes did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors said Hana, who is originally from Egypt, arranged dinners and meetings between Menendez and Egyptian officials in 2018 at which the officials pressed Menendez on the status of U.S. military aid. In exchange, Hana put Nadine Menendez on his company’s payroll, prosecutors said.
Egypt at the time was one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid, but the State Department had withheld $195 million in 2017 and canceled an additional $65.7 million until the country could demonstrate improvements on human rights and democracy.
Menendez at a meeting in 2018 told Hana non-public information about the status of the aid, prosecutors said. Hana then texted an Egyptian official, “The ban on small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted,” according to the indictment.
Prosecutors said Egypt’s government in 2019 granted one of Hana’s companies an exclusive license to export halal food from the United States to Egypt, despite lacking experience in halal certification. Hana used the proceeds from those exports to fund the bribe payments, according to the indictment.
After the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised concerns about Hana’s monopoly with Egyptian officials due to concerns over high costs to U.S. meat producers, Menendez asked a USDA official to let the company keep its status, prosecutors said.
The official did not comply with Menendez’s demands but the company nonetheless kept its monopoly, according to the indictment.
The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Menendez had previously been charged in New Jersey with accepting private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron in exchange for official favors, but a 2017 trial ended in a jury deadlock.
Prosecutors dropped their bribery case in 2018 and Menendez had maintained his innocence. He was also investigated in 2006.
He was first appointed to the chamber in 2006 to replace Jon Corzine, who resigned when he was elected New Jersey’s governor. Menendez was re-elected in 2018 to his third term.
The state has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, when Clifford Case was re-elected.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis and Andrew Goudsward in Washington; Writing by Tom Hals; Editing by Mark Porter)