A key Joe Biden ally has been charged with bribery and extortion over claims he used his position to “benefit Egypt” and took hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold bars and cash bribes.
Senator Bob Menendez, a leading foreign policy adviser to the president, claimed to “stand steadfast against dictators” but secretly aided Cairo’s authoritarian regime for his personal gain, prosecutors said.
They unveiled a criminal indictment against Mr Menendez, his wife Nadine, and three New Jersey businessmen – Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, and Fred Daibes – on Friday.
It revealed a search of the New Jersey senator’s home had uncovered around a half-a-million dollars in cash, some stuffed into suit jackets and a personalised hoodie bearing a senate emblem.
Gold bars worth around $150,000 and a luxury Mercedes-Benz convertible, gifted by one of the businessmen, were also found.
In exchange for the bribes, the indictment said, Mr Menendez used his influence as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee to push to end a US aid blockade amid concerns over Egypt’s human rights abuses.
It included ghost-writing a letter on behalf of Egypt from his personal email to his Senate colleagues in May 2018 encouraging them to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Cairo.
Over the same period he shared sensitive, non-public information about military issues with Egyptian officials over private meetings in his Senate office and steak dinners.
Mr Menendez revealed in July 2018 texts sent on to Egyptian officials that he planned to “sign off” on an arms sale worth $99 million that included 46,000 target practice rounds and 10,000 rounds of tank ammunition.
He also allegedly used his power and influence to try to disrupt a criminal investigation into an associate by pressing Mr Biden to install a US attorney for New Jersey whom Mr Menendez believed he could influence.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, as well as several other Democratic state officials and members of the House of Representatives, called for Mr Menendez to resign from the Senate.
“The alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state,” Mr Murphy said in a statement.
Mr Menendez has stepped down temporarily from his role as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee until the case is resolved. However, Mr Menendez said he had no plans to resign.
“It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere,” he said in a statement late on Friday.
The Democratic senator’s indictment is hugely embarrassing for the president’s party.
Mr Menendez has been an influential voice in shaping Mr Biden’s foreign policy, rallying support for aid for Ukraine in Congress and taking a strong stand on China as the president has sought to reassert a US role on the world stage.
The 69-year-old senator is up for re-election next year and a criminal trial could complicate Democrats’ effort to expand their slim 51-49 seat Senate majority.
Mr Menendez has denied any wrongdoing and accused prosecutors of misrepresenting “the normal work of a congressional office”.
“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” Mr Menendez said.
He has known he was under investigation for around a year and previously set up a legal defence fund.
In April, his wife sold gold bars worth as much as $400,000, according to the senator’s most recent financial disclosure form.
The couple will appear in court next Wednesday charged with three federal criminal counts each, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York said.
They are conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion under colour of official right.
If convicted, the most serious of the charges could result in up to 20 years in prison.
Acted as intermediary
Manhattan prosecutors said Mr Hana, who is originally from Egypt, acted as an intermediary between Mr Menendez and Egyptian officials in 2018.
At the time, Cairo was one of the largest recipients of US military aid, but Washington withheld $195 million in 2017 and cancelled an additional $65.7 million until the country could demonstrate improvements on human rights and democracy.
After meeting with Mr Menendez, Mr Hana texted an Egyptian official: “The ban on small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted.”
In exchange, the businessman put Ms Menendez on his company’s payroll.
But she complained about Mr Hana making unfulfilled promises in texts to her husband, saying: “[Hana] left for Egypt yesterday supposedly and now thinks he’s king of the world and has both countries wrapped around his pinky.”
The Egyptian government granted Mr Hana’s company an exclusive licence to export halal food from the US in 2019, despite its lack of experience in halal certification.
He used the proceeds from those exports to fund the bribe payments, according to the indictment.
‘More powerful than the president’
While discussing her demands for assistance with mortgage payments, Mrs Menendez sent a text saying: “When I feel comfortable and plan the trip to Egypt he [Mr Hana] will be more powerful than the president of Egypt.”
It is the second time in almost 10 years that Mr Menendez has been accused of corruption. His 2018 trial on unrelated bribery claims ended with a hung jury.
He appears to be the first sitting senator in US history to have been indicted on two unrelated criminal allegations.
Prosecutors are seeking to have Mr 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.
They claim Mr Uribe gave Mrs Menendez $15,000 in cash towards the Mercedes-Benz after her husband asked an official at the New Jersey attorney general’s office to resolve fraud investigations into his associates.
Mr Daibes, a real-estate developer in New Jersey, allegedly gave Mr Menendez gold bars and cash after the senator sought to influence a federal criminal case against him.
A spokesman for Mr Hana said the charges “have absolutely no merit”.
Lawyers for Mr Uribe and Mr Daibes did not immediately respond to requests for comment.