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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Informant in Menéndez bribery investigation made secret recordings

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) leaves Federal District court in Manhattan on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. A new legal filing in the bribery case against Menendez refers to recordings from a “confidential source.” (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Benjamin Weiser

When Sen. Bob Menendez was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of Egypt, prosecutors included a photograph of a small dinner meeting he held with his soon-to-be wife and three people with ties to Egypt at a steakhouse in Washington, D.C.

The indictment quoted Nadine Menendez, who married the senator in 2020, asking one of their dinner companions: “What else can the love of my life do for you?”

Left unexplained was how prosecutors learned of Nadine Menendez’s comment.

A new court document filed earlier this week by federal prosecutors in New York City offers a possible explanation.

For the first time, the prosecutors disclosed that a confidential informant had made recordings of conversations and shared details about the case with investigators.

Neither the indictment nor the legal brief gives any indication that the Washington dinner meeting, specifically, was recorded.

But the filing does offer new details about the evidence the government relied on last year when charging Bob Menendez, his wife and three New Jersey businesspeople with participating in a vast, yearslong bribery conspiracy.

Bob Menendez and his wife are accused of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including bars of gold bullion, mortgage payments and envelopes stuffed with cash, from the businesspeople in exchange for political favors. All five have pleaded not guilty to charges contained in three successive indictments and are facing trial in May.

The 196-page legal brief filed shortly before midnight Monday comes in response to a request last month by Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and other defendants, that the charges be dismissed altogether. The senator’s lawyers have argued that overzealous prosecutors are criminalizing normal legislative activity and flouting constitutional protections afforded to members of Congress.

In listing the evidence shared with the defendants, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York noted “information from a particular confidential source,” including recordings made by the source, and reports of “debriefings” of the source by investigators. The government also cited “draft translations of the recordings,” suggesting that conversations took place in a language other than English.

In Monday’s filing, the prosecutors asked the judge, Sidney H. Stein of U.S. District Court, to reject the defendants’ requests to dismiss the charges.

“Legislators ought not to stand above the law they create but ought generally to be bound by it as are ordinary persons,” they wrote, citing legal precedent.

Lawyers for Bob Menendez, 70, and Nadine Menendez, 56, have also requested separate trials to protect their clients from potentially offering incriminating testimony against a spouse, in the event that either takes the witness stand in his or her own defense. The Menendezes have also asked for the case to be transferred to New Jersey, arguing that little of the alleged activity took place in New York City.

The government called the requests for separate trials meritless.

“The indictment makes plain how they worked together, and they should be tried together,” prosecutors wrote.

The photograph of the Washington dinner, in May 2019, depicts Bob Menendez and his wife seated at a corner table, in front of large glass windows.

Three other people with ties to Egypt attended the dinner, according to the indictment. They were Wael Hana, a longtime friend of Nadine Menendez, who was in the process of setting up a halal meat business, which prosecutors said was later used to funnel bribes to the senator and his wife; and two others who were not named by prosecutors. One, identified by three U.S. officials, was Gen. Ahmed Helmy, Egypt’s top spy in Washington. The other was described by prosecutors as an “Egyptian American associate of Hana.”

Bob Menendez, who at the time was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked that day by Hana to try to persuade a top official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop objecting to a deal tied to his business, IS EG Halal, according to the indictment.

The senator complied, the government has said.

According to the indictment, the agriculture official rejected Bob Menendez’s request to back off. Still, the business arrangement went forward as planned, making IS EG Halal the sole U.S. company permitted to certify that halal meat exported to Egypt had been prepared according to Islamic law.

In exchange for the lucrative halal contract, Hana gave Bob Menendez and his wife bricks of gold bullion and paid down mortgage debts for Nadine Menendez, who was unemployed and on the brink of losing her house, prosecutors said.

The government cited the meeting to try to justify a rare charge: that a member of Congress plotted to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.

Bob Menendez’s lawyers have argued that because the United States had no authority to either approve or block the halal monopoly, a call to the agriculture official could not be an “official act” — the legal threshold set by the U.S. Supreme Court to prove a bribery conspiracy.

A lawyer for Menendez, Adam Fee, said the senator remained confident that he would “prevail at trial,” but added, “there should be no such trial.”

“We look forward to the court’s review of the merits of our motions that expose how the government has overcharged and overhyped this case,” Fee said.

A lawyer for Nadine Menendez had no comment. A lawyer for Hana, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said the government’s brief was “unfaithful to the applicable legal doctrine” and included “factual contentions that are not in” the indictment and therefore should not be considered.

Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for the Southern District, declined to comment.

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