NJ Sen. Bob Menendez pleads not guilty to federal bribery charges
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he used his position to secretly advance Egyptian interests and do favors for New Jersey businessmen in exchange for bribes.
Menendez made his initial court appearance in Manhattan’s federal court Wednesday days after prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging vast corruption by the Democrat, who was forced to step down as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being indicted. A lawyer entered the not guilty plea on his behalf.
Menendez was ordered released on a $100,000 bond, and he must surrender any personal passports but will be allowed to keep an official passport that would allow him to travel outside the U.S. for government business. The judge ordered him not to have any contact with his co-defendants except for his wife. He also can’t have contact with Senate staffers who know about the facts of the case outside of the presence of lawyers.
His wife Nadine, who also pleaded not guilty, will post a $250,000 bond secured by their Englewood Cliffs home.
The three-count indictment specifically states that Menendez used his position to aid the authoritarian government of Egypt and to pressure federal prosecutors to drop a case against a friend. It also says the couple took bribes – gold bars, a luxury car and cash – from three New Jersey businessmen in exchange for corrupt acts.
One of Menendez’s fellow defendants, Wael Hana, returned from Egypt Tuesday for his court appearance. He was released on $5 million bond and will have to adhere to a curfew and GPS monitoring and surrender his passport.
Two of the other businessmen indicted, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes, also were arraigned and pleaded not guilty.
Menendez has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation. He says allegations that he abused his power to line his own pockets are baseless. He has said he’s confident he will be exonerated and has no intention of leaving the Senate.
Authorities say they found nearly $500,000 in cash – much of it hidden in clothing and closets – as well as more than $100,000 in gold bars in a search of the New Jersey home Menendez, 69, shares with his wife.
On Monday, Menendez said that the cash found in his home was drawn from his personal savings accounts over the years, and which he kept on hand for emergencies. He did not address the gold bars or gifted luxury vehicle.
“I recognize this will be the biggest fight yet, but as I have stated throughout this whole process, 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,” Menendez said at Hudson County Community College’s campus in Union City, where he grew up.
One of the envelopes full of cash found at Menendez’ home bore Daibes’ DNA and was marked with the real estate developer’s return address, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors say Hana promised to put Menendez’s wife on his company’s payroll in a low-or-no-show job in exchange for Menendez using his influential post to facilitate foreign military sales and financing to Egypt. Prosecutors allege Hana also paid $23,000 toward her home mortgage, wrote $30,000 checks to her consulting company, promised her envelopes of cash, sent her exercise equipment and bought some of the gold bars that were found in the couple’s home.
The indictment alleges repeated actions by Menendez to benefit Egypt, despite U.S. government misgivings over the country’s human rights record that in recent years have prompted Congress to attach restrictions on aid.
Prosecutors, who detailed meetings and dinners between Menendez and Egyptian officials, say Menendez gave sensitive U.S. government information to Egyptian officials and ghost wrote a letter to fellow senators encouraging them to lift a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt, one of the top recipients of U.S. military support.
Prosecutors also allege Menendez tried to interfere in criminal investigations involving associates. In one case, he pushed to install a federal prosecutor in New Jersey whom Menendez believed he could influence to derail a criminal case against Daibes, prosecutors allege.
This is the second corruption case in a decade against Menendez, whose last trial involving different allegations ended with jurors failing to reach a verdict in 2017.
Fellow New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker on Tuesday joined the calls for Menendez to resign, saying in a statement that the indictment contains “shocking allegations of corruption and specific, disturbing details of wrongdoing.” Around half of Senate Democrats have now said that Menendez should step down, including several running for reelection next year.
“I’ve found the allegations hard to reconcile with the person I know,” Booker went on to say. “It is not surprising to me that Senator Menendez is again determined to mount a vigorous defense. And I still believe he, like anyone involved with our criminal justice system, deserves our presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Despite the fact that Menendez is maintaining his innocence, Booker said that public officials are held to a higher standard of common ideals and senators operate in the public trust — which is essential to their ability to do work and perform their duties.
“The details of the allegations against Senator Menendez are of such a nature that the faith and trust of New Jerseyans as well as those he must work with in order to be effective have been shaken to the core,” Booker said.
Booker says he believes stepping down is not an admission of guilty, but “an acknowledgment that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifices at great personal cost.”
Gov. Phil Murphy immediately called for Menendez’s resignation when the details were released.
If Menendez does step down, Murphy would be the one to appoint someone to fill his term. And there has already been discussion about Murphy’s’ wife Tammy possibly running for Senate.
Rep. Andy Kim is already challenging Menendez in the primary. Other members of the state’s congressional delegation have also been mentioned as possible candidates, but none have thrown their hat in the ring.