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Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez goes on trial in New York on federal corruption charges

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez's criminal corruption trial begins Monday in New York.
Andrew Harnik
Getty Images
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez's criminal corruption trial begins Monday in New York.

Sen. Robert Menendezgoes on trial Monday for allegedly accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including bars of gold, in exchange for using his position as a powerful member of Congress to benefit three New Jersey businessmen as well as the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

Menendez, a three-term Democratic senator from New Jersey, faces 16 criminal counts, including bribery, obstruction of justice, acting as a foreign agent and honest services wire fraud. He has pleaded not guilty, and says that he is being targeted because he is a prominent Latino.

He faces trial alongside two co-defendants, Egyptian-American businessman Wael Hana and real estate developer Fred Daibes, while a third businessman, Jose Uribe, pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government. Menendez's wife, Nadine, was also charged but will face trial separately.

After he was indicted, Menendez stepped down from his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful post that gave him influence over foreign military sales and financing. Despite calls to step down entirely, he has professed his innocence, refused to resignfrom the U.S. Senate and is still running for reelection this fall — though not as a Democrat.

This is not the first time Menendez has faced legal peril. He was indicted in 2015 on unrelated federal corruption and bribery charges, which he fought and took to trial. That case was declared a mistrialafter the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Menendez has vowed he will prevail in this prosecution as well. This case will be heard by a federal jury in Manhattan, unlike his previous trial which was in his home state of New Jersey. Jury selection begins Monday, and the trial is expected to last up to two months.

The prosecution's case

The indictment describes a complex bribery scheme that allegedly ran from 2018 to 2023. Prosecutors say that Menendez and his wife accepted bribes from the three businessmen, including gold bullion, a Mercedes Benz convertible and cash. In exchange, Menendez allegedly agreed to take action to protect and enrich the trio, as well as to secretly benefit Egypt and Qatar.

The alleged scheme contains various threads that were all intertwined.

One revolved around Hana, who prosecutors say had close contacts with Egyptian officials and had been friends with Nadine Menendez for years.

The indictment says Menendez promised to use his power and authority to facilitate military sales and financing to Egypt. In return, Hana promised, among other things, to put Nadine Menendez on the payroll of his company for a "low-or-no-show job."

Prosecutors say Menendez provided sensitive U.S. government information to Egyptian officials, with Hana acting as a middleman of sorts. Menendez also allegedly edited and ghost-wrote a letter on behalf of Egypt aimed at convincing U.S. senators to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt. He also signed off on foreign military aid to the country.

Hana, meanwhile, had secured a monopoly from the Egyptian government on certifying U.S. food exported to Egypt as halal. That monopoly, prosecutors say, was highly lucrative for Hana and his business, but it raised the cost of halal certification for U.S. meat suppliers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture contacted the Egyptian government with concerns about the monopoly.

Gold bars

According to the indictment, Menendez — at Hana's request — intervened to protect Hana's business by calling a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official and demanding the department "stop interfering" with Hana's monopoly.

The thread related to Qatar revolves around another co-defendant, Daibes.

According to the indictment, Daibes was trying to secure a multimillion-dollar investment from a Qatari investment company, and he enlisted Menendez's help to do so.

Prosecutors say Menendez made "multiple public statements supporting the Government of Qatar," and then gave them to Daibes to show the Qatari investor and a Qatari government official. In return for allegedly using his influence as a senator to help Daibes, the indictment says Menendez received gold bars and cash from the businessman.

FBI agents recovered gold bars, as well as $480,000 in cash, during a court-authorized search of Menendez's home in New Jersey. Some of the gold bars bore serial numbers indicating they'd previously been owned by Daibes.

The indictment says stacks of cash were found in jackets with Menendez's name stitched on them. Some envelopes of cash found at the home had Daibes' fingerprints on them, according to court papers.

In addition to those actions, prosecutors allege Menendez also used his influence as a senator to intervene in investigations or prosecutions at the state and federal level.

In one instance, they say he tried to intervene in a New Jersey state criminal prosecution of an associate of one of the businessmen, Jose Uribe, by calling a senior investigator and urging that the matter be resolved.

In another instance, Menendez allegedly took action to intervene in a federal prosecution of Daibes.

Menendez's defense

Menendez has said that he has worked tirelessly over his career as a public servant, and he's claimed that he'd being targeted because of his Cuban heritage.

In a news conference after his indictment, Menendez told reporters that "prosecutors get it wrong sometimes."

On the cash found at his home, Menendez said that he has withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from his personal savings for potential emergencies. It's a habit, he said, drawn on "the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba." Menendez was born in New York to parents who had immigrated from Cuba.

"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."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.