US Senator Bob Menendez indicted on bribery charges

Prosecutors accuse Menendez and his wife of corruption, including using top Democrat’s power to influence policy to benefit Egypt.

US Senator Bob Menendez
Bob Menendez has been in the US Senate since 2006 and is the chair of the influential Senate Committee on Foreign Relations [File: Julia Nikhinson/Reuters]

Top United States Senator Bob Menendez and his wife have been charged with bribery, as prosecutors accused the pair of accepting bribes for a range of corrupt acts, including influencing foreign policy for the benefit of Egypt.

The US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan on Friday accused Menendez and his wife Nadine of accepting hundreds of dollars in bribes in connection to their relationship with three New Jersey businessmen.

“Those bribes included cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle, and other things of value,” the indictment read.

A search of the couple’s home turned up $100,000 in gold bars and $480,000 in hidden cash, prosecutors said.

Menendez and his wife face three criminal counts each: conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion under colour of official right.

In a statement after the charges were made public, Menendez said he was the subject of an “active smear campaign”. He also accused prosecutors of making false claims about him and his wife and suggested opponents could not “accept that a first-generation Latino American” might serve with integrity in the US legislature.

“They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office,” the statement said. “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.”

Menendez, the 69-year-old chair of the influential US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, had previously been charged in New Jersey with accepting private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron in exchange for official favours.

However, a 2017 trial ended in a jury deadlock. The senator cited his past legal woes in his statement on Friday.

“To my supporters, friends and the community at large, I ask that you recall the other times the prosecutors got it wrong and that you reserve judgement,” he said.

Menendez, who has been in the US Senate since 2006, appears to be the first sitting senator in US history to have been indicted on two unrelated criminal allegations, according to a list maintained by the Senate Historical Office.

Menendez faces re-election next year in a bid to extend his three-decade career in Washington. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate.

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.

They are seeking to have Menendez forfeit assets including his New Jersey home, a 2019 Mercedes-Benz and about $566,000 in cash, gold bars and funds from a bank account.

The businessmen — Wael Hana, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes — were also charged in the scheme.

Prosecutors said Hana, who is originally from Egypt, arranged dinners and meetings between Menendez and Egyptian officials in 2018, during which the officials pressed the senator about the status of US military aid.

In exchange, Hana put Nadine Menendez on his company’s payroll, prosecutors said.

Egypt, at the time, was one of the largest recipients of US military aid, but the Department of State had withheld $195m in 2017 and cancelled an additional $65.7m until the country could demonstrate improvements in human rights and democracy.

At a meeting in 2018, Menendez told Hana nonpublic information about the status of the aid, prosecutors said. Hana then texted an Egyptian official, “The ban on small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted,” according to the indictment made public on Friday.

Reporting from Washington, DC, on Friday afternoon, Al Jazeera correspondent Heidi Zhou-Castro said that the accusations are “startling and wide-reaching”.

“Menendez is one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress,” she explained.

The crux of the indictment, she said, was that “Menendez shared sensitive and nonpublic information with the Egyptians, including staffing at the US embassy in Cairo and the status of US military aid to Egypt”.

In a statement on Friday, the president of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), an ethics watchdog, called on Menendez to resign.

“The stain of corruption continuously taints Menendez,” said the group’s president, Noah Bookbinder.

“Menendez deserves a fair trial and a presumption of innocence on these latest charges, but it is not appropriate for him to remain in office,” he said. “Out of respect for the institution of the Senate, he must step down.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies