US Senator Menendez charged with bribery, says he will not resign

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, Sept 22 (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors on Friday charged powerful Senator Bob Menendez and his wife with taking bribes from three New Jersey businessmen, which could complicate Democrats’ efforts to keep their slim majority in the U.S. Senate in next year’s elections.

Menendez later stepped down temporarily from his role as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee until the case is resolved, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, adding that Menendez had a right to due process.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan said Menendez, 69, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash and gold bars in exchange for using his power and influence as New Jersey’s senior senator to benefit the government of Egypt and interfere with law enforcement probes into the businessmen.

Menendez has been an important ally to fellow Democrat Joe Biden as the president has sought to reassert U.S. influence on the world stage, rally support for congressional aid to Ukraine, and push back against a rising China.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, as well as several other Democratic state officials and members of the U.S. House of Representatives, called on 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,” Murphy – who would appoint a temporary replacement for Menendez should he go – said in a statement.

However, Menendez said he had no plan 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 Friday.

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

The indictment contained an image of gold bars investigators seized from Menendez’s home as well as envelopes stuffed with cash found inside jackets bearing Menendez’s name hanging in his closet. Prosecutors said they found more than $480,000 in cash in his home.

Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, noted that Menendez’s website says that as a senator he cannot compel an agency to act in someone’s favor or influence matters involving a private business.

“Behind the scenes, Senator Menendez was doing those things for certain people – the people that were bribing him and his wife,” Williams said. He added the investigation was ongoing.

Menendez said in a statement that prosecutors mischaracterized routine legislative work.

“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” Menendez said. “The facts are not as presented.”

A lawyer for Nadine Menendez, 56, who has been married to the senator since 2020, said she denied wrongdoing and would “vigorously defend” against the allegations in court.

MENENDEZ HAS FACED OTHER PROBES

The investigation marks the third time Menendez has been investigated by federal prosecutors, although he has never been convicted.

Federal prosecutors in New Jersey dropped a case in January 2018 in which Menendez was charged with accepting private flights, campaign contributions and other bribes from a wealthy patron in exchange for official favors. A 2017 trial on those charges ended in a jury deadlock. He was also investigated in 2006.

Senate Democratic rules require any member charged with a felony to give up their leadership position, although they can resume it if found not guilty. Senator Ben Cardin is expected to step in again as foreign relations chairman, as he did after Menendez was indicted in 2015.

Menendez, on his third term, has said he plans to seek re-election next year.

An investigation could complicate Democrats’ effort to expand their slim 51-49 seat majority in the 100-member Senate, although New Jersey has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972.

A Cuban American, Menendez has been the toughest opponent among Biden’s Democrats of any move by the administration to soften policies toward Cuba and Venezuela.

He has also been one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, especially resistant to major weapons deals for the kingdom.

Criminal charges against members of the 100-seat Senate are relatively rare. Ted Stevens, a former Republican Senator from Alaska, was found guilty of corruption in 2008, but the conviction was later overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, was arrested for lewd conduct in a bathroom in 2007 and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct.

BUSINESSMEN ALSO CHARGED

Menendez, his wife and the businessmen – Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, and Fred Daibes – are all expected to appear in Manhattan federal court on Sept. 27 to face charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.

Bob and Nadine Menendez also each face one count of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right. The pair each face up to 45 years in prison, though any sentence would ultimately be determined by a judge and would likely be much shorter.

According to the indictment, Hana – who is originally from Egypt – arranged meetings in 2018 between the senator and Egyptian officials, in which officials pressed Menendez to sign off on military aid Washington had withheld over concerns about the country’s human rights record.

In exchange, Hana, 40, put Nadine Menendez on the payroll of a company he controlled that had the exclusive right to certify halal meat shipped to Egypt from the United States, prosecutors said.

The senator later sought to persuade the U.S. Department of Agriculture to not take any action to interfere with the company’s monopoly status, according to the indictment.

“We are still reviewing the charges but based upon our initial review, they have absolutely no merit,” a spokesperson for Hana said in a statement.

The Egyptian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Prosecutors said Uribe, who worked in the trucking and insurance businesses, gave Nadine Menendez $15,000 in cash to help pay for a Mercedes-Benz convertible after her husband asked an official at the New Jersey attorney general’s office to resolve fraud investigations into Uribe’s associates favorably.

Daibes, a real estate developer, gave Menendez gold bars and cash after Menendez sought to influence a federal criminal case in New Jersey against Daibes for obtaining loans under false pretenses, federal prosecutors in Manhattan said. Daibes pleaded guilty and received a probationary sentence.

Lawyers for Uribe and Daibes did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jonathan Stempel in New York and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Simon Lewis, Makini Brice and Andrew Goudsward in Washington; Writing by Tom Hals; Editing by Mark Porter, Daniel Wallis and Rosalba O’Brien