NATIONAL NEWS

Sen. Menendez, wife indicted on bribe charges as probe finds $100,000 in gold bars, prosecutors say

Sep 22, 2023, 8:04 AM | Updated: 11:15 am

FILE: U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes his ...

FILE: U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes his way to the Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol on August 03, 2022 in Washington, DC. Chairman Menendez delivered remarks on the Senate Floor in support of Senate ratification of the NATO accession protocols for Sweden and Finland. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — Sen. Bob Menendez was charged Friday with secretly aiding the authoritarian regime of Egypt in exchange for gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash as prosecutors unsealed a corruption indictment that accuses him of using his foreign affairs influence for personal gain.

The indictment, the second in eight years against the powerful 69-year-old New Jersey Democrat, alleges an illegal commingling of Menendez’s professional obligations as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to advance U.S. priorities and his private interests in cultivating relationships with wealthy businessmen who furnished a lavish lifestyle.

The indictment — coming years after an earlier criminal case against Menendez ended with a deadlocked jury — also charges the senator’s wife and three New Jersey businessmen who authorities say showered the couple with money, gold and luxury gifts in exchange for his actions on their behalf.

Authorities found more than $100,00 worth of gold bars in Menendez’s home, and $480,000 in cash — much of it hidden in closets, clothing and a safe, prosecutors say. Photos included in the indictment show cash stuffed in envelopes found in jackets bearing Menendez’s name.

Prosecutors allege Menendez took repeated actions to benefit Egypt despite U.S. government misgivings over the country’s human rights record that in recent years has prompted Congress to impose restrictions on aids. His steps include ghost-writing a letter to fellow senators encouraging them to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt as well as transmitting non-public information to Egyptian officials about military issues, the indictment says.

Menendez is also accused of trying to derail the criminal investigation into one of his associates by pushing to install a U.S. attorney for New Jersey whom Menendez believed he could influence.

Menendez in an emailed statement accused prosecutors of misrepresenting “the normal work of a congressional office.”

“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” Menendez said. “Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists.”

Menendez said he has been falsely accused of accepting bribes and “will not be distracted” from work in the Senate.

David Schertler, a lawyer for Menendez’s wife, Nadine, said she “denies any criminal conduct and will vigorously contest these charges in court.”

Menendez appears to be the first sitting senator in U.S. history to have been indicted on two unrelated criminal matters, according to the Senate Historical Office. He faces reelection next year in a bid to extend his three-decade career in Washington as Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate.

Egypt has long been a top recipient of U.S. government aid — more than $1 billion a year — thanks to overriding American national security interests in the region, but the relationship has been tested by concerns over human rights abuses in the country.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has influence on executive branch decisions on military spending and aid to foreign countries including Egypt as well as the ability to recommend “holds” on financing that the State Department historically respects.

Prosecutors allege Menendez and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from three business associates, Wael Hana, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes. He also used his influence to pressure the president to nominate a U.S. attorney for New Jersey who would protect Daibes, a longtime friend and prominent New Jersey developer who faced criminal prosecution, they said.

Requests for comment from lawyers for Daibes, Hana and Uribe were not immediately returned.

In April 2020, shortly after meeting with an Egyptian official, authorities allege, Menendez lobbied then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to increase American engagement in stalled negotiations involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to build a dam over the Nile River, a key foreign policy issue for Egypt.

Separartely, after Menendez called a government official about Daibes’ case, according to the indictment, his wife was given a Mercedes-Benz convertible by Uribe and Hana, both friends of the senator and his wife. The indictment says that after the purchase was complete, Nadine Menendez texted her husband to say: “Congratulations mon amour de la vie, we are the proud owners of a 2019 Mercedes,” with a heart emoji.

Now that he is indicted, Menendez will have to step down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, according to rules for the Senate Democratic caucus. It is unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will also call on him to leave the committee or resign from his seat. Schumer has not yet commented on the indictment.

The first time Menendez was indicted, he had been accused of using his political influence to help a Florida eye doctor who had lavished him with gifts and campaign contributions. Menendez was accused of pressuring government officials to resolve a Medicare billing dispute in favor of a friend — Dr. Salomon Melgen — securing visas for the doctor’s girlfriends and helping protect a contract the doctor had to provide port-screening equipment to the Dominican Republic.

Menendez has always maintained his innocence. His lawyers said campaign contributions and gifts from Melgen — which included trips on his private jet to a resort in the Dominican Republic and a vacation in Paris — were tokens of their longtime friendship, not bribes.

Prosecutors dropped the case after a jury deadlocked in November 2017 on charges including bribery, fraud and conspiracy, and a judge dismissed some counts.

The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez has held public office continuously since 1986, when he was elected mayor of Union City, New Jersey. He was a state legislator and spent 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2006, Gov. Jon Corzine appointed Menendez to the Senate seat he vacated when he became governor.

The new charges follow a yearslong investigation that examined, among other things, the dealings of a New Jersey businessman — a friend of Menendez’s wife — who secured sole authorization from the Egyptian government to certify that meat imported into that country meets Islamic dietary requirements. Investigators also asked questions about the Menendez family’s interactions with a New Jersey developer.

Menendez first publicly disclosed that he was the subject of a new federal investigation last October. Prosecutors declined at the time to comment, but some details of their investigation emerged in news reports and court records.

In 2019, federal agents seized electronic devices and records from the offices of IS EG Halal, a New Jersey company that had been named by the Egyptian government as the sole company to certify that imported meat met religious requirements.

The designation surprised U.S. agriculture officials. Previously, several other companies had been doing that certification, but they were dismissed by Egyptian agriculture officials in favor of IS EG Halal, which had no previous experience in the field.

The switch happened the same year that Menendez became engaged to his wife, an acquaintance of the new halal certification company’s owner, Hana, of Edgewater, New Jersey.

Records show his now wife, 56, was battling foreclosure on her Bergen County property in 2018. When she and Menendez got engaged it began a period of financial turnaround for Nadine Menendez, a former marketer for a medical company.

Within weeks of their engagement, she incorporated a business, Strategic International Business Consultants LLC, according to state records. Her foreclosure case was dismissed soon after. The following year, her assets included gold bars valued between $100,000 to $250,000, according to a Senate disclosure form amended by Menendez in March of 2022.

Between April and June of 2022, the couple cashed out at least part of their precious metal holdings, forms show, selling between $200,000 and $400,000 worth of gold bars, while keeping at least $250,000 worth of them.

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Sen. Menendez, wife indicted on bribe charges as probe finds $100,000 in gold bars, prosecutors say