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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Menéndez pleads not guilty to bribery charges

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and his wife, Nadine Menendez, leave their arraignment at Federal District Court in Lower Manhattan, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023. (Dave Sanders/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully, Benjamin Weiser and Lola Fadulu

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey pleaded not guilty Wednesday to bribery charges, standing before a magistrate judge in Manhattan federal court, his wife, Nadine, seated nearby.

About three hours earlier, the Menendezes had held hands as they pushed through a crowd of journalists and entered the courthouse without answering questions. A lone protester shouted “Resign!”

Nadine Menendez, 56, also entered a not-guilty plea for her role in the bribery conspiracy, which prosecutors said involved weapons sales and aid to the government of Egypt. In a 39-page indictment unsealed last week, they also described efforts by Bob Menendez, a powerful Democrat, to strong arm prosecutors in New Jersey in an attempt to influence criminal investigations.

In exchange, prosecutors said, the couple accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars, bars of gold bullion and a Mercedes-Benz convertible — bribes given by three New Jersey businesspeople who were also charged in the yearslong corruption scheme.

One of the businesspeople, Wael Hana, a U.S. citizen born in Egypt, was arrested Tuesday morning at Kennedy International Airport after he voluntarily flew to the United States from Egypt to face federal charges in Manhattan, his lawyer said. He pleaded not guilty hours later, surrendered his passport and was granted release on a $5 million personal recognizance bond.

The two other businesspeople charged with bribery, Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer, and Jose Uribe, who works in the trucking industry, also pleaded not guilty Wednesday.

The conspiracy as alleged by prosecutors was far-reaching and depicted a web of corruption that even one of the senator’s closest allies, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, called shocking and disturbing.

Menendez, 69, has said in recent days that he was confident that he would be exonerated once the facts were fully presented, and he has cautioned against a rush to judgment. He has rejected calls from a growing number of top Democrats, including Gov. Phil Murphy and Booker, to step down.

The scheme involved payments by Hana, Daibes and Uribe to Menendez and his wife in exchange for the senator’s efforts to direct federal aid and weapons sales to Egypt, according to the indictment.

The plot also benefited Hana’s halal meat business, prosecutors said, which eventually won a contract to be the sole entity worldwide permitted by Egypt to certify that imported food products had been prepared according to Islamic law. Hana used his company, according to the indictment, to funnel bribes to the Menendezes.

The New Jersey-based company, IS EG Halal, reported little to no income until April 2019, when the Egyptian government gave it exclusive rights to certify meat coming from the United States, even though Hana had no experience in the industry, state and federal records show. Until then, four companies had divided the work.

“Seems like halal went through,” Nadine Menendez said in a text to the senator, the indictment said. “It might be a fantastic 2019 all the way around.”

When a high-level U.S. Department of Agriculture official publicly objected to the monopoly, concerned that it could increase the cost of food in Egypt and disrupt U.S. markets, Bob Menendez tried to silence the official, the indictment said.

Bob Menendez is also accused of intervening in criminal investigations involving people tied to the Egyptian scheme.

Investigators found $550,000 in cash, 13 bars of gold bullion and the Mercedes during a June 2022 search of a safe deposit box in Nadine Menendez’s name and the couple’s home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

The charges came after a lengthy investigation led by the FBI and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Much of the alleged activity occurred in New Jersey. But prosecutors noted that parts of the conspiracy, including a dinner meeting and sales of gold in Manhattan, and the use of a bank account first opened in the Bronx, took place within the Southern District’s jurisdiction.

“My office is firmly committed to rooting out corruption, without fear or favor, and without any regard to partisan politics,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, said in a statement. “We will continue to do so.”

Bob Menendez was charged in 2015 with similar, but unrelated, corrupt acts by federal prosecutors in New Jersey. His trial in Newark lasted nine weeks, but the jury could not reach a unanimous decision. In January 2018, the Justice Department declined to retry him after a judge dismissed the most serious charges.

Prosecutors say the corruption scheme laid out in the new indictment began the following month.

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