NEW YORK (AP) — Powerful Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey was charged Friday with secretly aiding the authoritarian government of Egypt and trying to thwart the criminal prosecution of a friend in exchange for gold bars and cash under a corruption indictment that accuses him of using his foreign affairs influence for personal gain.
Menendez was forced to relinquish his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but said he would not resign from Congress, though New Jersey’s governor, a fellow Democrat, and other Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation said he should.
The indictment, the second in eight years against the 69-year-old senator, alleges an illegal commingling of Menendez’s obligations to advance U.S. priorities and his private interest in cultivating relationships with wealthy businessmen. It also includes charges against his wife and three New Jersey businessmen who authorities say showered the couple with money, gold and a luxury car in exchange for official favors.
A previous indictment of Menendez stemming from different allegations ended in 2017 with a deadlocked jury.
Hours after the latest case was unsealed, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy demanded Menendez’s immediate resignation, saying the allegations were “so serious that they compromise” the senator’s ability to serve. Additional calls for him to resign came from New Jersey Reps. Bill Pascrell, Andy Kim and Mikie Sherrill, among others.
Menendez sounded defiant in response to calls for him to leave office, saying in a statement late Friday, “I am not going anywhere.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Menendez would step down as chairman of the Foreign Relations panel “until the matter has been resolved,” as per the rules of the Senate Democratic caucus, but Schumer stopped short of calling for him to to resign.
Menendez accused prosecutors of misrepresenting “the normal work of a congressional office” and said he would not allow his work in the Senate to be distracted by “baseless allegations.”
Authorities who searched Menendez’s home last year found more than $100,000 worth of gold bars, as well as over $480,000 in cash — much of it hidden in closets, clothing and a safe, prosecutors say. Photos in the indictment show cash that was stuffed in envelopes in jackets bearing Menendez’s name. Investigators also say they discovered a Google search by Menendez for the value of a “kilo of gold,” and DNA of one man prosecutors say bribed him on an envelope filled with thousands of dollars.
One set of allegations is that Menendez directly interfered in criminal investigations, including by pushing to install a federal prosecutor in New Jersey he believed could be influenced in a criminal case against a businessman and associate of the senator. Prosecutors say he also tried to use his position of power to try to meddle in a separate criminal investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office.
Other accusations include repeated actions by Menendez to benefit Egypt despite U.S. government misgivings over the country’s human rights record that in recent years have prompted Congress to attach restrictions on aid. His efforts include ghostwriting a letter to fellow senators encouraging them to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt, one of the top recipients of U.S. government support, as well as transmitting nonpublic information to Egyptian officials about military issues, the indictment says.
Menendez, in an emailed statement, said: “For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave. 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.”
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. His trial on charges that he pressured government officials to resolve a matter involving a Florida eye doctor -- who had lavished him with gifts and campaign contributions — ended with a deadlocked jury.
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.
“Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey. He has a right to due process and a fair trial,” Democratic leader Schumer said in an emailed statement.
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 used his influence to push to nominate Philip Sellinger as U.S. attorney because he believed he could influence Sellinger to protect Daibes, a longtime friend and prominent New Jersey developer who faced criminal prosecution, they said. Sellinger, who currently serves in the position, is not accused of any wrongdoing.
Daibes pleaded guilty last year to bank fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced in October. His plea deal calls for him to serve only probation in that case.
The White House declined to comment on the indictment, including on Biden’s nomination of Sellinger.
Requests for comment from lawyers for Daibes and Uribe were not immediately returned. A spokesperson for Hana, Steven Goldberg, said the indictment was still being reviewed but that the charges appear to have “absolutely no merit.”
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.
Separately, after Menendez called a government official about an investigation of a Uribe associate, Uribe and Hana worked to provide the senator’s wife with a Mercedes-Benz convertible. The indictment says that after the transaction 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.
The first time Menendez was indicted, he had been accused of using his political influence to pressure 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, and 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, how Hana’s company — IS EG Halal — was able to secure sole authorization from the Egyptian government to certify that meat imported into that country meets Islamic dietary 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.
Prosecutors say Menendez then pressured a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to stop opposing Hana’s company as the sole halal certifier. Hana’s company was used to send bribes payments to a business set up by Menendez’s wife called Strategic International Business Consultants, LLC, prosecutors allege.
Senate disclosure forms amended by Menendez in March 2022 show Nadine Menendez’s assets included gold bars valued between $100,000 to $250,000. 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.
Richer reported from Boston and Tucker reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Michael Catalini in Trenton and Farnoush Amiri, Mary Clare Jalonick, and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed.