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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Sen. Bob Menéndez’s trial begins, with a sprawling web of charges

New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, arrive at Federal District Court in New York on March 11, 2024. Prosecutors have depicted Senator Robert Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, as collaborators who took bribes in exchange for the senator’s willingness to steer weapons and aid to Egypt and meddle in criminal investigations involving allies. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Tracey Tully and Benjamin Weiser

Jury selection for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption trial started Monday in a federal courthouse in Manhattan, a 20-mile drive from Menendez’s home in northern New Jersey, where for decades he has been a well-known Democratic political leader.

His efforts to move the trial to his home turf had failed. Jurors picked to decide the case will be from Manhattan, the Bronx or one of several New York counties north of the city.

Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York have said they expect to take as many as six weeks to present their case against Menendez, who is accused of being at the center of an international bribery scheme involving more than $100,000 in gold bullion, an Egyptian halal meat monopoly and a Qatari sheikh.

Menendez, 70, will be tried with two New Jersey businesspeople: Fred Daibes and Wael Hana.

All three sat in the court for more than two hours Monday morning, quietly talking with their lawyers while the judge, Sidney Stein, questioned prospective jurors who said they would be unable to serve for the duration of the trial.

The senator appeared relaxed, his hands clasped either at his waist or near his chest, fingers tented.

His wife, Nadine, 57, was also charged in the bribery scheme but will be tried separately, in July. A judge granted her request for a delay after her lawyers said she had a serious medical condition that required prompt treatment and, possibly, a lengthy recovery.

All four defendants have pleaded not guilty, and Menendez has said he will be exonerated at trial, leaving open the possibility that he might run for reelection as an independent in November.

A key government witness in the trial could be Jose Uribe, another businessperson who was charged with Bob Menendez but who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors. At his guilty plea in March, Uribe admitted that he gave Nadine Menendez a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible “in return for influencing a United States senator to stop a criminal investigation.”

Here are the central claims outlined by prosecutors, who will be trying to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Bob Menendez, Daibes and Hana participated in a sprawling bribery conspiracy that lasted nearly five years:

Aiding Egypt

Menendez is charged with using his “influence and power” as a senator in ways that benefited the government of Egypt and Hana, an American citizen who emigrated from Egypt and was trying to get a halal meat certification company off the ground in New Jersey.

For example, after meeting with Hana in May 2018, prosecutors say, Menendez obtained nonpublic information from the State Department about the number and nationality of employees at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The information was relayed to an Egyptian official through Nadine Menendez and Hana. Prosecutors noted that the information was not classified but was considered highly sensitive and could pose “significant operational security concerns” if disclosed.

The senator, a former leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also accused of steering weapons and aid to Egypt in exchange for bribes. In May 2018, he secretly helped to write and edit a letter from Egyptian officials who were lobbying other U.S. senators to release $300 million in additional aid, according to the indictment.

Halal meat monopoly

To help Hana’s business, IS EG Halal, the senator pressured a high-level U.S. Department of Agriculture official, prosecutors claim. The official had objected to Egypt’s plan to make Hana’s company the sole entity authorized to certify that meat imported to the country from the United States had been prepared according to Islamic law. (Until then, at least four U.S. companies had divided the work, and the sudden shift caused prices to skyrocket.)

According to the indictment, Menendez called the official to demand that the USDA “stop interfering with IS EG Halal’s monopoly.”

The official refused, but the business arrangement, which the United States had no power to block, remained in place, enabling IS EG Halal to thrive.

Bob Menendez is also charged with trying to use his clout to quash criminal cases in New Jersey — two involving associates of Uribe’s and one against Daibes, a real estate developer and longtime friend of the senator’s who had donated to his campaigns.

Uribe had been implicated in an insurance fraud investigation by the New Jersey attorney general’s office that involved two of his associates, according to the indictment. “The deal is to kill and stop all investigation,” Uribe wrote to Hana in April 2018.

The senator called and then met in September 2019 with officials from the attorney general’s office in an effort to scuttle the inquiry, according to the indictment. In exchange, Uribe told a judge at his recent guilty plea, he had provided the Mercedes-Benz to Nadine Menendez in April 2019 and arranged to cover its monthly payments.

Seeking a new U.S. attorney

Daibes is accused of giving the Menendezes bribes of furniture, gold bars and cash.

Investigators found 11 gold bars linked to Daibes during a June 16, 2022, search of the couple’s home. Daibes’ fingerprints or DNA were also found on 10 envelopes, containing more than $80,000, during the search, according to a court filing.

Less than three months before the search, the senator’s wife sold two 1-kilogram bars of gold that were traced to Daibes and worth about $120,000, prosecutors have also said.

The payments were provided, in part, in exchange for the senator’s efforts to resolve federal bank fraud charges that Daibes faces in New Jersey, according to the indictment.

Daibes was charged in October 2018 with obtaining loans under false pretenses from a bank he had founded years earlier, Mariner’s.

Qatar connection

All of this was occurring as Daibes was preparing to build a high-rise apartment complex along the Hudson River in Edgewater, New Jersey.

In January 2023, Heritage Advisors, a firm founded by a Qatari sheikh, finalized a $45 million shared ownership agreement for the Edgewater project with a company controlled by Daibes, New Jersey property records show.

Daibes gave the senator “at least one gold bar” after a draft of the real estate deal was firmed up, prosecutors said.

An official with the Qatari investment firm told prosecutors in December that the company considered the high-rise complex a “trophy project” because it faced the Manhattan skyline. The investors also said they were able to negotiate favorable terms because Daibes was “unbankable,” leaving him few lending options, according to a filing last month by Avi Weitzman, one of the senator’s lawyers.

“The decision to invest in the Edgewater development project,” Weitzman wrote, “had nothing to do with Senator Menendez or the government of Qatar.”

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