How Menéndez tried and failed to place an ally in a key federal post
By Benjamin Weiser, Nicholas Fandos and Tracey Tully
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., had a problem — and, prosecutors say, an opportunity. An old friend and political patron was facing federal prosecution. And as New Jersey’s senior senator, Menendez was in a position to help, by recommending the next leader of the office overseeing the case.
In early 2021, Menendez urged President Joe Biden to nominate a lawyer he knew well as the state’s next U.S. attorney: Esther Suarez, a politically connected prosecutor in his home county. It did not go as planned.
When White House and Justice Department officials interviewed Suarez, they found her knowledge of federal law lacking, and they had substantial concerns about her qualifications, according to four people familiar with the sessions.
Menendez pushed for Suarez to be given another chance, the people said. But after a rare second interview, the result was the same.
The episode sheds new light on the lengths to which the government now says Menendez, a three-term Democrat, went to try to secure a friendly prosecutor in New Jersey’s top federal law enforcement position. Far from being routine politics, Menendez’s attempts to fill the position were part of a brazen scheme to sell his office for cash, gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz convertible, a federal indictment says.
The indictment includes charges that Menendez conspired to direct aid and weapons sales to Egypt, fueling questions about international espionage. But back in New Jersey, the search for a U.S. attorney was the centerpiece of a far more tawdry web of alleged corruption in which the senator sought to make his friend’s case vanish and pressured a senior official in the state attorney general’s office to quash insurance-fraud matters on behalf of another ally.
The senator’s attempts to influence the criminal matters failed.
“Fortunately, the public officials the senator sought to influence did not bend to the pressure,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said last month when he announced the charges against Menendez, his wife and three New Jersey businesspeople. One of them, Fred Daibes, was the friend Menendez had in mind when selecting a U.S. attorney.
All five defendants have pleaded not guilty. The senator said he is innocent of all wrongdoing and has vigorously rejected calls for his resignation, presenting himself as a victim of overzealous prosecutors targeting him because he is Latino.
“The government is engaged in primitive hunting, by which the predator chases its prey until it’s exhausted and then kills it,” Menendez said last week. “This tactic won’t work.”
In a separate statement to The New York Times, the senator defended Suarez’s qualifications and said he had recommended her “based on her experience and credentials, both as a Latina jurist and prosecutor.”
Of all the allegations against Menendez, perhaps none cuts to the heart of the justice system as directly as the accusation that he tried to install and then influence a favorable U.S. attorney who would take over the case against Daibes.
A real estate tycoon who helped build up New Jersey’s waterfront, Daibes had been indicted in 2018 by the U.S. attorney’s office there in a bank fraud scheme.
Traditionally, in selecting U.S. attorneys and federal judges, presidents defer to their party’s senior senator in a state — in this case, Menendez.
And so, in late 2020, Menendez began meeting with potential candidates for the post, including Philip R. Sellinger, co-head of the New Jersey office of the international law firm Greenberg Traurig and a former federal prosecutor.
Sellinger had contributed to Menendez’s Senate campaigns since 2006 and had co-hosted a fundraiser as recently as June 2020, according to an invitation. He also gave $40,000 to a defense fund Menendez set up in 2014 to pay legal costs associated with an earlier federal indictment, according to Open Secrets; that case ended with a hung jury.
During his meeting with Sellinger, according to prosecutors, Menendez criticized the Daibes prosecution — the only case he mentioned — and said he hoped Sellinger would look into it if he got the post.
After Sellinger told the senator he might have to recuse himself from the case because he had once handled a matter in private practice involving Daibes, the senator chose to recommend a different person, the indictment says. Though it does not name her, that person was widely known to be Suarez.
Suarez would have been well known to Menendez. She worked for Scarinci Hollenbeck, a law firm led by one of his oldest confidants, and as legal counsel to his hometown, Union City. In 2015, after a stint as a state judge, she was sworn in as the top prosecutor for Hudson County, where Menendez built his political network.
Suarez struggled through her first interview with White House and Justice Department officials. Menendez’s office said he never “insisted” that Suarez receive a second interview, but acknowledged that he did request one because Suarez wanted to “clarify some issues from her initial interview.”
It did little to help her case; the Biden administration informed Menendez that it would not nominate Suarez. Menendez soon turned back to Sellinger.
This time, an unnamed adviser to Menendez spoke with Sellinger and came away with the impression that he might not have to be recused in the Daibes case, according to the indictment.
The indictment does not describe what Sellinger said to the adviser. But it says the adviser texted Menendez in May 2021 that if he called Sellinger, “you’ll be comfortable with what he says.”
With Menendez’s recommendation, the White House nominated Sellinger, and he was confirmed and sworn in that December. But the Justice Department, after reviewing the matter, said he would have to recuse himself from the Daibes case, the indictments say.
Sellinger has not been accused of wrongdoing. His spokesperson has said that the case was “handled appropriately” and declined further comment.
Daibes’ case appeared to be resolved that April, when he pleaded guilty to making false entries on a loan document — part of an agreement that called for no prison time.
His lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, said that the deal was the result of “extended, very hard fought and good-faith negotiations between me and the U.S. attorney’s office.”
But this month, a federal judge in New Jersey rejected that agreement, leading Daibes to withdraw his guilty plea. That case is now pending.
The senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, were rewarded for all their effort, prosecutors say. In late January 2022, Nadine Menendez exchanged two brief calls with Daibes’ driver. She then texted Daibes: “Thank you. Christmas in January.”
The driver’s fingerprints were later found on an envelope holding thousands of dollars of cash that was recovered from the Menendezes’ residence. The envelope also bore Daibes’ return address and DNA, the indictment says.
Then, in March, Nadine Menendez met Daibes for lunch, and a day later, she gave a jeweler two 1-kilogram gold bars, asking that they be sold. Prosecutors say each bar was marked with a serial number indicating it had belonged to Daibes.
Nadine Menendez was delighted. “THANK YOU Fred,” she texted him after the lunch, adding pray, X, O and heart emoji.