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There’ll Be No Escape for Bob Menendez This Time

Even the Supreme Court’s lax bribery standards might not let him off.

Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
Bob Menendez

The Supreme Court’s threshold for bribery these days is almost indistinguishable from a Thomas Nast cartoon. Corruption, in the justices’ eyes, is when a railroad tycoon hands a politician a burlap sack with a big dollar sign on it. But that extraordinarily high hurdle allegedly didn’t stop New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez from leaping over it.

Federal prosecutors charged Menendez, his wife, and three New Jersey businessmen with multiple counts related to bribery schemes over the past five years. The Menendezes allegedly took hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation—cash, gold bullion, and even a luxury car—in exchange for the senator “agreeing to use his power and influence to protect and enrich those businessmen and to benefit the government of Egypt,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement on Friday.

It is a wholly unsurprising turn for Menendez, who beat a corruption investigation only six years ago thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2016 that narrowed the federal bribery statute on First Amendment grounds. The high court has gone to great lengths to make it harder to prosecute U.S. corruption cases, but the indictment suggests that Menendez has gone to even greater lengths to make it possible for them to charge him.

The latest bribery schemes involve a few semi-related Menendez efforts to intervene in official government business on behalf of his friends and benefactors. His voice carried a certain weight in those circles: Menendez is among the highest-ranking Senate Democrats and is the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gives him an outsize platform among senators when it comes to American diplomacy.

Friday’s indictment alleges that Menendez used that platform to benefit Wael Hana, an Egyptian-born New Jersey businessman with ties to the Egyptian government. Hana had a prior friendship with Nadine Menendez, the senator’s wife since 2020. In 2019, Hana set up a company for certifying that meats are prepared in accordance with Islamic dietary law. The company soon became the only one authorized to certify halal meat exports from Egypt, a privilege that had been previously held by four different U.S. enterprises. Hana had no prior experience in halal meat certification.

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture raised concerns about the certification arrangement, Menendez allegedly intervened at Hana’s request to pressure the department to drop the matter. “When [a USDA official] attempted to explain why the monopoly was detrimental to U.S. interests, Menendez reiterated his demand, in sum and substance, that the USDA stop interfering with IS EG Halal’s monopoly,” prosecutors alleged. “[The official] did not accede to Menendez’s demand, but IS EG Halal nevertheless kept its monopoly.”

At Hana’s behest, Menendez also became involved in the U.S. government’s decisions to send military aid to Egypt. Prosecutors alleged that he secretly ghostwrote a letter sent by Egypt to Menendez and other U.S. senators requesting that they help lift a hold on military aid to the country, which had been initially imposed because of human rights concerns with the country’s authoritarian regime. Hana introduced Menendez and his wife to a number of Egyptian government officials, with whom Menendez worked to lift the ban.

The relationship, according to prosecutors, helped lead to billions of dollars in U.S. military aid being directed to Egypt. The Menendezes were not subtle about their role in breaking the logjam. “In or about January 2022, Menendez sent Nadine Menendez a link to a news article reporting on two pending foreign military sales to Egypt totaling approximately $2.5 billion. Nadine Menendez forwarded this link to Hana, writing, ‘Bob had to sign off on this.’”

In exchange for Menendez’s interventions, federal prosecutors claimed that Hana gave the senator’s wife a “low-to-no-show job” to facilitate tens of thousands of dollars in payments, which she then used for mortgage payments. The indictment depicts Nadine Menendez as persistent when it came to getting payments from Hana and other businessmen in his circle, often texting them to remind them about missed ones.

Among those other businessmen were Jose Uribe, a former insurance agent, and Fred Daibes, a real estate developer. Menendez allegedly sought to use his influence to intervene in two separate criminal prosecutions: a state-level case involving one of Uribe’s associates and a federal case against Daibes for bank fraud–related charges.

In Uribe’s case, Menendez directly contacted a senior state prosecutor in New Jersey to influence the office’s approach. The unnamed prosecutor, according to the indictment, “considered Robert Menendez’s actions inappropriate and did not agree to intervene,” even going so far as to avoid telling the prosecution team that Menendez had contacted him to avoid “any potential inappropriate influence” over the case.

When the prosecutors resolved the case with a guilty plea that did not include prison time, Uribe and his associates apparently concluded that Menendez’s call played a role and allegedly sought to appropriately reward him for it. This took the form of tens of thousands of dollars in payments from Hana and Uribe to help Nadine Menendez purchase a Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible, according to the indictment. After picking up the car, prosecutors said, the senator’s wife texted Uribe, “You are a miracle worker who makes dreams come true I will always remember that.”

For the federal case against Daibes, a longtime Menendez fundraiser, the senator allegedly went even further. Federal prosecutors claimed that the senator “promised to and did use his influence and power and breach his official duty to recommend that the President nominate an individual” to be the chief federal prosecutor for the District of New Jersey to help influence Daibes’ case. While Biden did nominate him, neither the president nor Sellinger are accused of any wrongdoing.

Menendez’s efforts allegedly extended to questioning prospective U.S. attorney nominees about the Daibes case. “After the meeting, [an unnamed candidate] informed Menendez that he might have to recuse himself from the Daibes prosecution as a result of a matter he had handled in private practice involving Daibes,” the indictment alleged. “Menendez subsequently informed the candidate that Menendez would not put forward the candidate’s name to the White House for a recommendation to be nominated by the president for the position of U.S. Attorney.”

Menendez allegedly reached out to Sellinger, who ultimately recused himself from the case, and a subordinate who took it over in an unsuccessful attempt to intervene on Daibes’s behalf. By 2022, Daibes rewarded Menendez for his meddling, richly. At one point, according to the indictment, Menendez performed a Google search for “kilo of gold price.” Prosecutors then claimed that, one day after the senator’s wife met with Daibes for lunch, she brought two one-kilogram gold bars worth $60,000 each to a jeweler for sale. The indictment says that the serial numbers on the bars showed they had belonged to Daibes.

By the time federal agents searched the Menendezes’ home in June 2022, they uncovered a treasure trove of cash, gold, and other gifts that the couple had acquired from their friends. “Over $480,000 in cash—much of it stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe—was discovered in the home, along with over $70,000 in Nadine Menendez’s safe deposit box,” the indictment claimed. “Some of the envelopes contained the fingerprints and/or DNA of Daibes or his driver. Envelopes were found inside jackets bearing Menendez’s name and hanging in his closet.” Roughly $100,000 in gold bars was also found.

The most striking thing about the indictment isn’t the Mercedes-Benz convertible, or the gold bars, or even allegedly helping to send military aid to a foreign government for personal gain. It’s the timeline. Federal prosecutors said the alleged bribery schemes took place “from at least 2018 up to and including in or about 2022.” That would place Menendez in the middle of a bribery scheme less than one year after prosecutors abandoned the previous case against him.

In that case, prosecutors charged Menendez for a consistent flow of personal gifts and campaign donations that the senator received from Salomon Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist, who was later convicted of defrauding Medicare. (Donald Trump commuted Melgen’s sentence in one of his last official acts.) Prosecutors alleged that the “stream of benefits” that flowed between Melgen and Menendez, who tried to intercede on his friend’s behalf from time to time, violated the federal bribery statute.

That argument fell apart after the Supreme Court’s ruling in McDonnell v. Virginia in 2016. The court unanimously threw out former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s conviction under the federal bribery statute on First Amendment grounds, concluding that he had not undertaken any “official acts” that would justify prosecution. The ruling effectively legalized trading campaign donations and gifts for an elected official’s favor and influence and, as I noted in 2017, reframed what had been disreputable and unseemly acts as constituent service.

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote at the time. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns. It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.” To that end, the justices have consistently ruled in favor of defendants in federal anti-corruption prosecutions since McDonnell.

Will Menendez get off scot-free once again? It’s doubtful. Prosecutors went to great lengths this time not only to show how specific gifts and goods were tied to specific favors—Nadine Menendez’s persistence in texting her associates for payment helped tremendously here—but also to show how Menendez used the formal and semiformal powers of his elected position to carry out the scheme.

To that end, the indictment ties the alleged bribes to Menendez’s ability to unblock foreign aid as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for Hana and the Egyptian government, as well as to his ability to influence who the White House nominated to be the chief federal prosecutor of New Jersey for Uribe and Daibes. The Supreme Court has required an almost cartoonish level of corruption to be charged with bribery by federal prosecutors. According to federal prosecutors, Bob Menendez has turned himself into a nineteenth-century political cartoon to do it.