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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    New Jersey senator charged with taking bribes of gold bars, cash

    Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., right, and his wife Nadine Arslanian pose for a photo on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 20, 2022. The sweeping bribery case brought against Menendez includes allegations that he took cash and gold in exchange for interfering in a criminal case against a New Jersey real estate developer. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
    Damian Williams, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, talks about a display of photos of evidence in an indictment against Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., during a news conference, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, in New York. The sweeping bribery case brought against Menendez includes allegations that he took cash and gold in exchange for interfering in a criminal case against a New Jersey real estate developer. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

    U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez from New Jersey was indicted in a sweeping corruption probe alleging that the Democrat and his wife protected three businessmen who showered them with gifts of gold bars, hundreds of thousands in cash, mortgage payments and a Mercedes convertible.

    The indictment in New York federal court said that Menendez, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, abused his power to secretly benefit Egypt as well the businessmen, including one seeking help with his own federal indictment. Another businessman sought the senator’s help to protect his company, the only authorized importer of halal meat to Egypt.

    Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a press conference Friday that Menendez sought to disrupt the probe by seeking to have a U.S. Attorney appointed in New Jersey that would “bow” to political pressure.

    “This investigation is very much ongoing,” Williams said. “We are not done.”

    U.S. authorities in June 2022 took the extraordinary step of executing a search warrant on a sitting senator, recovering $486,461 in cash from Menendez’s house in New Jersey, two one-kilogram gold bars and 11 one-ounce gold bars. The cash was stuffed in envelopes and hidden in clothes, closets and a safe. The gold bars were worth around $82,000 at the latest spot prices.

    Agents also seized $79,760 from his wife’s safe deposit box, according the indictment.

    Menendez, 69, who faces re-election next year, said that “forces behind the scenes” are trying to “dig his political grave” and that he was simply doing normal work for constituents.

    “The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” Menendez said in a statement. “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 was also indicted eight years ago in another federal corruption case. His 2017 trial ended in a hung jury and the judge declared a mistrial. Prosecutors later dropped the case rather than seek a new trial.

    “I have been falsely accused before because I refused to back down to the powers that be and the people of New Jersey were able to see through the smoke and mirrors and recognize I was innocent,” Menendez said in the statement.

    Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, called on Menendez to resign, saying the latest indictment was “damning” and that he should step down out of respect for the Senate.

    A Monmouth University poll last month showed reports about the corruption probe hurt Menendez’s standing with some voters ahead of his reelection campaign next year. Just 36% of registered voters approved of Menendez in the poll, with 45% disapproving — worse than when he was previously indicted.

    “With these latest revelations, it’s time for Senator Menendez to resign,” the group said in a statement. “The stain of corruption continuously taints Menendez.”

    Menendez and his wife were charged with Wael Hana, founder of IS EG Halal of Egypt, the halal meat importer; Fred Daibes, the former chairman of Mariner’s Bank in New Jersey who was indicted in 2018 and later pleaded guilty; and Jose Uribe, a New Jersey businessman in the trucking and insurance industries.

    All five defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, while the senator and his wife are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion. They are expected to appear in court on Wednesday.

    Hana allegedly connected Menendez with Egyptian military and intelligence officials, who enlisted the senator’s help in gaining access to military aid that had been held up due to human-rights concerns. Prosecutors said Menendez secretly ghost-wrote a letter lobbying his fellow senators to release a hold on $300 million in aid.

    The senator and his wife got expensive gifts from the Egyptian officials, including two exercise machines and an air purifier which the U.S. said were worth thousands of dollars in early 2021, according to the indictment.

    Menendez improperly pressured a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to protect the monopoly granted to Hana by Egypt, according to the indictment. The senator also used his influence to try to disrupt a criminal investigation by the state attorney general’s office into an associate of Uribe charged with insurance fraud, the U.S. said.

    The senator also tried to use his influence with the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey to influence the federal prosecution of Daibes in exchange for a 2018 Mercedes Benz C-300 convertible, worth more than $60,000, according to the indictment.

    The indictment depicts Nadine Menendez as hungry for cash and eager to help Egyptian officials. It cites a text she sent to her husband to complain that Hana and Daibes had not made expected payments, writing: “I am soooooo upset” that Hana had not left her an envelope.

    In March 2020, she texted an Egyptian official that “anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen.”

    Her attorney, David Schertler, said: “Ms. Menendez denies any criminal wrongdoing and will vigorously defend against these allegations in court.”

    Prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of the Menendez’s home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; the Mercedes-Benz; the cash and gold bars seized in June 2022; and the funds in an account for the company that Nadine Menendez allegedly set up to receive bribes.

    An attorney for Daibes and a spokesman for Hana said in separate statements that the charges had no merit and that their clients would be exonerated. Hana will return from Egypt for his court appearance on Wednesday, the spokesman said.

    — With assistance from Steven T. Dennis)

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