Egypt, gold bars and $15k in a parking lot: The sprawling allegations of corruption facing Robert Menendez

The powerful chair of the Senate’s foreign relations committee is accused of a years-long bribery scheme trading political favours for cash, gold, a Mercedes-Benz and other gifts, Alex Woodward reports

Wednesday 27 September 2023 11:29 BST
(Getty/US Department of Justice)

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Louise Thomas

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An extensive federal indictment alleging serious charges of corruption and bribery involving the Egyptian government and New Jersey businessmen targetted a sitting US senator who chairs a powerful committee that steers American foreign policy and global financial aid.

That senator, Robert Menendez, has stepped down as chair, “until the matter has resolved,” according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, as the long-time Democratic official from New Jersey faces calls for his resignation amid yet another federal investigation.

A grand jury indictment unsealed on 22 September charges Mr Menendez and his wife along with three New Jersey businessmen and associates who allegedly participated in a bribery scheme trading political favours for cash, gold bars, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and other gifts.

Authorities seized $100,000 worth of gold bars and more than $480,000 in cash, mostly stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe at their home, according to the indictment. Photographs in the indictment include jackets bearing Mr Menendez’s name and government seals stuffed with strapped bills.

Mr Menendez and his wife Nadine Menendez are charged with three counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.

Fred Daibes, Wael Hana and Jose Uribe are charged with the first two of those counts.

The indictment follows a lengthy investigation roughly six years after a trial on separate corruption claims resulted in a hung jury.

Mr Menendez, who was first appointed and then elected to the US Senate in 2006, has chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2015 and again since 2021.

The indictment outlines the senator’s role in several alleged criminal schemes, including sharing “sensitive US government information” among other steps to covertly benefit the Egyptian government, pushing US officials to secure an exclusive business deal with one of the co-defendants, and pressuring state and federal prosecutors to drop investigations – all in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold and gifts.

Egypt, military aid, ‘highly sensitive’ government information and a halal monopoly

The high-ranking Democratic official allegedly wielded his influence and access to give an Egyptian American businessman sensitive government information, then covertly wrote a letter on behalf of the Egyptian government calling on the US to unfreeze aid to Egypt.

Senator Menendez took cash, gold and car as bribes for information, prosecutors allege

He allegedly met with Mr Hana the same day in 2018 he asked the US Department of State for “highly sensitive” details about the US Embassy in Cairo, which he then allegedly shared with his wife, who forwarded the information to Mr Hana – who then gave it to an “Egyptian government official,” according to prosecutors.

Within that same month, the senator gave Mr Hana “nonpublic information” about US military aid to Egypt, after which Mr Hana allegedly told an Egyptian official that a “ban on small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted. That means sales can begin. That will include sniper rifles among other articles.”

Mr Menendez later ghostwrote a letter on behalf of the government of Egypt asking his own senate colleagues to release a hold on $300m in US aid to Egypt, then deleted an email in which his wife asked him to do that, according to prosecutors.

The indictment also alleges that he called on an official with the US Department of Agriculture asking the agency to halt its opposition to the Egyptian government’s allowance of a company operated by Mr Hana to have a monopoly with Egypt.

Egypt had granted IS EG Hala exclusive rights to certify halal food exports to Egypt.

It is unclear how he obtained the contract, but prosecutors’ filing suggests that his ties to the Menendez family were crucial to the arrangement.

The senator’s manoeuvers allegedly followed Mr Hana sharing information from Egyptian officials with Ms Menendez about the USDA’s objections. She then shared that information with her husband, who later deleted the texts.

“Seems like halal went through. It might be a fantastic 2019 all the way around,” Ms Menendez texted Mr Hana, according to the indictment.

Mr Hana then began paying Ms Menendez, including a $23,000 mortgage payment through his company.

Interfering with a criminal case, $15k in a parking lot and a Mercedes-Benz

In 2019, Mr Menendez allegedly sought to interfere with a criminal investigation connected to Mr Uribe’s trucking business facing scrutiny from New Jersey prosecutors.

US Attorney Damian Williams announces corruption charges against Senator Robert Menendez and his wife in an alleged scheme with three New Jersey businessmen on 22 September.
US Attorney Damian Williams announces corruption charges against Senator Robert Menendez and his wife in an alleged scheme with three New Jersey businessmen on 22 September. (Getty Images)

The now-convicted New Jersey businessman then arranged the sale of a Mercedes-Benz convertible to Ms Menendez after handing her $15,000 in cash in a parking lot, according to the indictment.

She then allegedly used $15,000 for a down payment and lied on an application to secure loan financing. Mr Uribe later arranged monthly financing payments routed through his associates or a company he controlled, the indictment alleges.

A federal prosecutor and internet searches for ‘kilo of gold price’

In the case of Mr Daibes, the senator allegedly agreed to interfere with a pending federal case involving his co-defendant in exchange for cash, furniture and gold bars – as well as recommending the presidential nomination of a candidate for US Attorney in New Jersey that the senator believed he could influence to soften the prosecution of his longtime fundraiser.

The New Jersey real estate developer was indicted in October 2018.

Mr Menendez allegedly sought the senate confirmation of a nominee for US Attorney in New Jersey who would go easy on Mr Daibes. That nominee, Philip Sellinger, ultimately recused himself from the case.

In January 2022, Mr Daibes’s driver allegedly called Ms Menendez and texted Mr Daibes: “Christmas in January.” The senator then called an official with the US Department of Justice overseeing Mr Daibes’s prosecution.

Federal authorities allegedly seized $100,000 in gold bars from the home of US Senator Robert Menendez, according to an indictment on bribery and corruption charges.
Federal authorities allegedly seized $100,000 in gold bars from the home of US Senator Robert Menendez, according to an indictment on bribery and corruption charges. (US Department of Justice)

At one point, the senator allegedly performed an internet search for “how much is one kilo of gold worth” and, later, “kilo of gold price”.

In March 2022, Ms Mendendez brought two one-kilogram gold bars to a jeweller, according to the indictment. Prosecutors allege the serial numbers indicate they previously belonged to Mr Daibes.

New Jersey officials and members of Congress call for resignation

Several members of Congress, including Mr Menendez’s fellow New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who also serves on the foreign relations committee, have urged the senator to step down, a call that Mr Menendez has repeatedly rejected in the days after the indictment was unsealed.

“Stepping down is not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifices at great personal cost,” Mr Booker said in a statement on 26 September. “Senator Menendez has made these sacrifices in the past to serve. And in this case he must do so again. I believe stepping down is best for those Senator Menendez has spent his life serving.”

Several Democratic senators have also called on their senate colleague to resign in the wake of the allegations.

New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy has asked for the senator’s “immediate” resignation. If Mr Menendez were to step down, the governor would appoint a successor to fill in the remainder of his term. Primary elections are scheduled for 4 June 2024.

This undated image included in an indictment against Senator Robert Menendez shows money found in jackets belonging to the powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
This undated image included in an indictment against Senator Robert Menendez shows money found in jackets belonging to the powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (US Department of Justice)

Democratic US Rep Andy Kim of New Jersey, a three-term congressman and among the first members of Congress calling for the senator to resign, said that allegations outlined in the indictment are “serious and alarming.”

“I don’t have confidence that the Senator has the ability to properly focus on our state and its people while addressing such a significant legal matter,” he added. “He should step down.”

Mr Kim also has announced his intention to run against Mr Menendez in a Democratic primary for his seat.

Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who served during President Barack Obama’s administration, said that “the nation will be better served if he steps aside and allows a transition to occur that will best serve the people of New Jersey.”

“It’s time for Senator Menendez to resign,” former prosecutor and president of government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “The conduct outlined in today’s indictment and the evidence presented are even more damning. The people of New Jersey should not have to be constantly questioning whether one of their senators is taking action for them or to line his pockets.”

The senator’s response – and refusal to step aside

In a statement shared by his office hours after the indictment was announced, the senator accused “forces behind the scenes” of attempting to dig his “political grave” with a smear campaign creating “an air of impropriety where none exists.”

“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent. They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office. On top of that, not content with making false claims against me, they have attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had before she and I even met,” he added.

The senator will “remain focused on continuing this important work and will not be distracted by baseless allegations.”

“They wrote these charges as they wanted; the facts are not as presented. Prosecutors did that the last time and look what a trial demonstrates,” he added.”People should remember that before accepting the prosecutor’s version.”

In a defiant press conference on 25 September, the senator did not address the allegations in the complaint against him but claimed that he had “withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account.”

Mr Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, said he stored cash at his home for emergencies and “because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba.”

“Now this may seem old fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years,” he added. “I look forward to other issues at trial.”

This story was originally published on 22 September and has been updated with developments

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