US Senator Menendez says he will be exonerated in bribery indictment

Bob Menendez faces calls to step down amid allegations he took bribes and used influence on behalf of the Egyptian government.

'This will be the biggest fight yet,' says US Senator Bob Menendez, who was indicted alongside his wife Nadine on bribery charges last week [Mike Segar/Reuters]

US Senator Bob Menendez has said he is confident he will be exonerated after prosecutors indicted him on accusations the top Democrat used his influence to benefit the government of Egypt in exchange for bribes.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Menendez acknowledged that “this will be the biggest fight yet”, but said he plans to retain his seat in the United States Congress.

“I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be New Jersey’s senior senator,” said Menendez, who temporarily stepped down as chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations after the indictment was unsealed on Friday.

Prosecutors have accused Menendez and his wife, Nadine, of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including “cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle, and other things of value”.

Those bribes were provided through three businessmen, including one who set up meetings with Menendez and Egyptian officials in 2018, the indictment states.

During the meetings, the officials questioned Menendez on the status of US military aid to Egypt, a portion of which had been withheld by the administration of President Joe Biden over human rights and democracy concerns, prosecutors have said.

Prosecutors further accused Menendez of sharing sensitive and non-public information with the Egyptian officials through his contacts.

The senator and his wife have been charged with conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion under colour of official right.

He has maintained his innocence and said he is the victim of a “smear campaign”.

On Monday, Menendez also sought to defend his record on Egypt.

“Throughout my 30 years in the House of Representatives and the Senate, I have always worked to hold accountable those countries including Egypt for human rights abuses, the repression of its citizenry, civil society, and more,” he told reporters.

But the 69-year-old has faced growing pressure from ethics groups and members of his own Democratic Party to resign.

On Sunday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow Democrat, told CBS that the allegations in the indictment were “extremely serious”.

Democrat Andy Kim also announced he plans to run against Menendez for his Senate seat when his term ends in 2024.

“[New Jersey] deserves better,” Kim wrote on social media. “We cannot jeopardize the Senate or compromise our integrity.”

Menendez had previously been charged in a separate federal bribery case connected to accusations he accepted private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron in exchange for official favours.

A 2017 trial ended in a jury deadlock and Menendez maintained his innocence in that case, too.

Bribes for influence

The three businessmen named in last week’s indictment – Wael Hana, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes – also face charges alongside Menendez and his wife.

Prosecutors said Hana had set up the meetings between Menendez and the Egyptian officials, with the businessman texting one official after a meeting with Menendez in May 2018 that the “ban on small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted”.

Menendez is also accused of ghostwriting a letter to American senators said to be from an Egyptian official that called for a freeze on $300m in US aid to Egypt to be lifted.

At the time, Cairo – a longtime ally of Washington in the Middle East – was one of the largest foreign recipients of US military aid, receiving about $1.3bn annually.

However, the US Department of State withheld $195m in 2017 and cancelled an additional $65.7m until the country could demonstrate improvements on its rights record.

Menendez is also accused of using his government influence to help Hana maintain a monopoly on imports of halal meat from Egypt.

Prosecutors said the US senator also attempted to derail unrelated investigations into Uribe and Daibes, the other two businessmen charged in the alleged scheme.

Prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of assets belonging to Menendez and his wife, including a New Jersey home, a 2019 Mercedes-Benz, and about $566,000 in cash, gold bars and funds from a bank account.

Authorities turned up $100,000 in gold bars and $480,000 in hidden cash during a search of the couple’s home in June of last year, according to prosecutors.

On Monday, Menendez said the money found in his home was withdrawn from his personal savings account.

“For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba,” he said.

“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.”

Following last week’s indictment, Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), an advocacy group, called on the Biden administration to immediately suspend all military aid to Egypt pending the prosecution.

“The shocking indictment of [Menendez] revealing Egypt’s bribery to secure military aid should result in a complete freeze on all aid to Egypt until every communication Egypt has had with US officials is thoroughly and independently investigated,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s executive director.

“The worst possible outcome here is if Senator Menendez goes to jail for accepting bribes from Egypt, but the White House continues to reward corrupt Egyptian officials with billions in taxpayer money.”

Source: Al Jazeera