Robert Menendez, the senior Democratic senator from New Jersey, and his wife Nadine accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to exert influence over US military aid to Egypt and help a halal exports business, prosecutors in Manhattan alleged in an indictment unsealed on Friday.
The couple and three New Jersey businessmen were charged over an alleged four-year long “corrupt relationship” involving the gifting of cash, gold bars, mortgage payments and a Mercedes-Benz convertible.
Menendez “used his power and influence, including his leadership role on the Senate foreign relations committee, to benefit the government of Egypt in various ways”, Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York said, and “allegedly provided sensitive, non-public US government information to Egyptian officials”.
Menendez denied the allegations in a blistering statement on Friday, accusing “forces behind the scenes” of “repeatedly attempt[ing] to silence my voice and dig my political grave” and promoting an “active smear campaign”.
He accused prosecutors of misrepresenting the “normal work of a congressional office” and “attack[ing]” his wife for “the longstanding friendships she had before she and I even met”.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, later confirmed Menendez would step aside as leader of the chamber’s powerful foreign relations committee. Schumer said Menendez had a “right to due process and a fair trial,” but had “rightly decided to step down temporarily” from the committee “until the matter has been resolved”.
The indictment marks the second time the influential senator has been forced to defend corruption charges, after being accused in 2015 of accepting almost $1mn in bribes from a Florida ophthalmologist in exchange for allegedly intervening in Medicare billing disputes and supporting the visa applications of several of his co-defendant’s girlfriends.
A jury deadlocked and was unable to reach a verdict in that case, and the charges were later dropped in 2018.
“I have been falsely accused before because I refused to back down to the powers that be, and the people of New Jersey were able to see through the smoke and mirrors and recognise I was innocent,” Menendez said on Friday.
In the indictment unsealed on Friday, prosecutors said the senator had “improperly advised and pressured an official at the . . . Department of Agriculture for the purpose of protecting a business monopoly granted to [a co-defendant] by Egypt” involving the certification of halal food exports.
Menendez was also alleged to have personally drafted a letter in 2018 that was later sent by an Egyptian lobbyist to senators, imploring them to remove a hold on $300mn worth of military aid to the Arab state.
Prosecutors further said the New Jersey senator “promised to and did use his influence and power and breach his official duty to seek to disrupt a criminal investigation and prosecution” undertaken into one of the co-defendants’ associates by the state attorney-general’s office.
The proceeds of some of the alleged bribes were found during a raid on Menendez’s home and safe deposit box last summer, in which more than $480,000 in cash — “much of it stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets, and a safe”, according to the indictment — was discovered, along with more than $70,000 in a box belonging to Menendez’s wife.
Fingerprints and DNA from one of the co-defendants was identified on some of the cash, prosecutors said.
Two one-ounce gold bars, whose serial numbers matched those bought by one of the co-defendants a year earlier, were also found in the search, the indictment said.
Menendez, 69, is a former mayor of New Jersey’s Union City, who has been on Capitol Hill for decades, serving six terms in the House of Representatives before being appointed to the Senate in 2006.
He replaced Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs executive who had stepped down from his Senate seat after being elected governor of New Jersey. Menendez was re-elected in 2012 and 2018, and is expected to stand for re-election again next year.
Menendez on Friday called on the public to “recall the other times the prosecutors got it wrong” and “reserve judgment”.
As chair of the powerful Senate foreign relations committee — a role once held by President Joe Biden while he was in the Senate — Menendez played a central role in crafting foreign policy legislation and confirming senior state department officials. Menendez first chaired the committee from 2013 to 2015, but stepped down from his role as the most senior Democrat on the panel after his first indictment. He rejoined in 2018, after the charges were dropped.
During a briefing on Friday, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told reporters the White House would not comment on the charges against Menendez or whether he should resign. She added that there were “discussions happening” about the Menendez’s “next steps,” and said she would “leave it to the leadership in the Senate” to address.
Additional reporting by James Politi