Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has been indicted — again.
On Friday, prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment charging Menendez, his wife Nadine, and three businessmen with conspiracy to commit bribery and other corruption crimes.
The eye-popping indictment alleges that the Menendezes accepted “cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle,” and other bribes in exchange for Menendez using his senatorial influence to benefit the businessmen. Prosecutors say they found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and two gold bars during a search of the couple’s home, including some inside Menendez’s jackets.
Menendez is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, and there’s a foreign relations angle to the indictment. One of the businessmen, Wael Hana, had won a lucrative contract from the government of Egypt and frequently arranged meetings between Egyptian officials and the Menendezes. Prosecutors allege Menendez “provided sensitive US government information and took other steps that secretly aided the government of Egypt,” in exchange for bribes paid by Hana.
They also allege that Menendez called state prosecutors to try and “disrupt” an investigation into another businessman in exchange for a car. And they claim Menendez tried to get President Biden to appoint a US Attorney for New Jersey who would scuttle yet another investigation for a donor — in exchange for “cash, furniture, and gold bars.”
That’s … a lot. Now, one catch is that Menendez has beaten an indictment before — prosecutors accused him of bribery and corruption back in 2015, but the jury deadlocked at trial.
This time around, though, the evidence appears more extensive and damning. Prosecutors quote from text messages exchanged among the alleged conspirators, and even internet searches by Menendez (including “how much is one kilo of gold worth”). And they spend a great deal of time pointing out how specific gifts or payments happened immediately before or after Menendez intervened in a way the businessmen wanted.
But Menendez sounded defiant in a statement Friday claiming that “for years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” and claiming that his enemies “simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a US Senator and serve with honor and distinction.”
So Democrats now have a problem on their hands. Menendez is up for reelection in 2024 and continues to hold a powerful Senate post. Will Democrats pressure him to resign? Or will they stand by as he attempts to fight it out again?
Over the weekend, Rep. Andy Kim (D-NJ) announced he’d challenge Menendez in next year’s primary, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) and a handful of other elected Democrats called on the senator to step down. But Menendez hasn’t seen a total collapse in his party support just yet, and in a Monday press conference he said he would not resign.
Bob Menendez’s rise to power, and his first indictment, explained
The son of Cuban immigrants, Menendez rose to power in the Democratic machine of Hudson County, New Jersey, serving as a mayor and then a member of Congress. Corruption rumors have dogged him since he was first appointed to the US Senate in 2006. When he was running for a full term that year, word leaked that federal prosecutors were scrutinizing a nonprofit he had helped get millions in federal grant money — and that had paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent. No charges were brought, and Menendez won a full term.
He quickly rose through the Democratic ranks in the Senate and became chair of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2013. A standard-issue Democrat on most domestic issues, he was sometimes a thorn in the Obama administration’s side on foreign policy, criticizing deals Obama struck with Iran and Cuba. He also started living large, taking lavish trips and accepting gifts funded by a campaign donor, wealthy Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. This again drew federal prosecutors’ scrutiny, and in 2015, Menendez got his first indictment on bribery and corruption charges.
But prosecutors’ case ran into a problem. They presented ample evidence that Menendez used the power of his office to help Melgen out — he advocated on Melgen’s behalf in a billing dispute he was having with Medicare, and intervened in various matters pertaining to a cargo screening contract Melgen had with the Dominican Republic. But they needed to prove a quid pro quo — that Menendez was performing “official acts” specifically in return for the gifts and donations. And defense attorneys argued that they were just good friends helping each other out. Their argument prevailed: In 2017, the prosecution ended in a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury.
Menendez now seemed vindicated. He soon regained his former post as top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee (he had stepped back from it while his prosecution unfolded). There was no serious Democratic effort to dislodge him; he only faced an unknown in his 2018 primary, though he got a surprisingly weak 62 percent of the vote against her — and he beat his Republican challenger pretty easily in the general election.
Prosecutors’ explosive new allegations against Menendez
Also in 2018, Menendez started dating the woman who would soon become his second wife — and alleged partner in crime — Nadine Arslanian. Before Nadine began dating Menendez, she had “lived a mainly private life” focused on raising two children rather than working, and had struggled financially after a divorce, the New York Times reported. She was unemployed before dating Menendez, and faced foreclosure on her home soon after — so she needed money.
Soon, the money — and more — started rolling in. Prosecutors argue that it did so because Menendez and his wife made corrupt deals with three businessmen.
1) Wael Hana, his halal business, and the Egyptian government
Wael “Will” Hana was a longtime friend of Nadine’s who had ties to Egyptian government officials. Shortly after Nadine began dating Menendez in 2018, she helped Hana arrange a series of meetings between Egyptian officials, the senator, and Nadine, often discussing arms sales and aid. Per prosecutors, Hana promised Nadine payments in exchange for facilitating these meetings and said he’d give her “a low-or-no-show job” at his company.
In spring 2019, Hana scored: The Egyptian government granted his company an exclusive monopoly on certifying that US food exports to Egypt were compliant with halal standards in Islamic law, even though he had no experience in this business area. Prosecutors do not say specifically why they believe Hana obtained this contract, but the implication is that his ties to Menendez were crucial. And Nadine sounded excited — per the indictment, she texted Menendez, “Seems like halal went through. It might be a fantastic 2019 all the way around.”
The US Department of Agriculture looked askance at the news, believing it would raise costs for US meat suppliers, so multiple officials contacted the Egyptian government to object. Menendez then called a high-level department official and demanded they back off. And once money was rolling in to Hana’s company, he began paying Nadine — including paying, through his company, $23,000 of her mortgage that was being foreclosed on.
Prosecutors claim that, in total, Hana paid hundreds of thousands in checks, cash, and gold to the Menendezes. In return, they claim, Menendez used his office to help the government of Egypt in various ways, including by providing non-public information about US embassy personnel and planned changes in armed policy.
2) Jose Uribe’s legal trouble, and a Mercedes-Benz
Separately, Hana also connected the Menendezes with Jose Uribe, another businessman working in trucking and insurance (and who had previously been convicted of fraud). Uribe had some associates in legal trouble, with one already being prosecuted by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office and one being investigated by that same office, and he was concerned the cases could implicate him. Hana told the senator and Nadine about all this, and soon afterward, Menendez called the New Jersey attorney’s office, urging them to wrap up the prosecution.
Meanwhile, Nadine had gotten into a car accident and needed a new car, and texts suggest that Uribe had promised to pay for it. Eventually, he gave Nadine $15,000 that she used for a down payment on a Mercedez-Benz convertible (after which Nadine texted him, “I will never forget this”) and continued to make monthly payments on the car afterward. Prosecutors argue that this all amounts to Menendez trying “to disrupt New Jersey state criminal matters” in exchange for a car.
3) The prosecution of Fred Daibes, two kilos of gold, and some cash
Then there’s Fred Daibes, a longtime fundraiser for Menendez, who had been charged with bank fraud by the US Attorney’s office for New Jersey in 2018. With President Biden set to take office in 2021, it was time for a new US Attorney. Traditionally, senators from a state are deeply influential on the US attorney’s choice.
Menendez, prosecutors say, badly wanted it to be someone who would go easy on Daibes. He interviewed one candidate, attorney Philip Sellinger, and urged him to do so. When Sellinger said he’d probably have to recuse from the Daibes case, Menendez said he wouldn’t recommend him for the post, per the indictment.
Later, a Menendez adviser spoke to Sellinger about the case again, and the adviser reported back to Menendez that he might not have to recuse after all. Menendez eventually did recommend Sellinger for the post, and he was confirmed (and did end up recusing, to the senator’s frustration).
In October 2021, Menendez and Nadine returned from a foreign trip, and Daibes’s driver gave them a ride back to their house. The next day, prosecutors say Menendez did a web search for “how much is one kilo of gold worth.”
Then, in January 2022, Daibes’s driver called Nadine, and she texted Daibes: “Christmas in January.” Shortly afterward, Menendez called the Justice Department official who was overseeing Daibes’s prosecution. (Agents who later searched Menendez’s home discovered an envelope full of cash with Daibes’s driver’s fingerprints and Daibes’s DNA and return address.)
Later that month, Menendez again searched “kilo of gold price.” He also called the DOJ official again, and called Daibes immediately afterward. In March 2022, Nadine brought two one-kilogram gold bars (then worth $60,000 each) to a jeweler to be sold. The serial numbers on the gold bars, per prosecutors, indicate Daibes had previously possessed them.
What it all means
It’s pretty rare to get an old-fashioned bribery scandal at this level of national politics these days.
Of course, there’s endless amounts of “legal corruption” going around. Politicians regularly do favors to donors who fund their campaigns, since this is legal as long as there’s no direct quid pro quo. Ex-politicians or officials become lobbyists in industries they’d overseen. Foreign governments pay Donald Trump’s businesses. Hunter Biden rakes in big bucks for questionable work. Justice Clarence Thomas takes luxury trips.
But even compared to Menendez’s last indictment — based on his accepting trips and gifts in a Clarence Thomas-like way — this seems to be at a new level. Envelopes of cash and gold bars for a sitting national politician seem like something out of an earlier era.
And now the question is what Democrats will do about it.
Many in the party have long averted their eyes from Menendez’s alleged corruption because he was simply too powerful and seemed impossible to dislodge. And outwardly, he appears defiant again, pledging to deny and fight out these charges much like Trump did.
Most Democrats would surely prefer he resign because if he did so, New Jersey’s Democratic governor would appoint his replacement. But that decision is really up to Menendez. And he is currently running for reelection in 2024, which makes his seat another headache for Democrats in what’s already an extremely difficult Senate year for the party.
So it’s significant Gov. Murphy has called on Menendez to resign, and that Kim, a two-term congressman from South Jersey, jumped into the Senate primary. “Not something I expected to do, but NJ deserves better,” Kim tweeted. “We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity.” Now, other top Democrats will have to decide whether to stick with Menendez — or cut him loose.
Update, September 25, 2 pm ET: This article was originally published on September 22 and has been updated to include Rep. Kim’s primary challenge to Menendez and Gov. Murphy’s call on him to resign.