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Bob Menendez faced legal danger once more through the sale of arms, cash, and gold bars


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Eight months after his trial on federal corruption charges ended with a deadlocked jury, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) had an important message for Egyptian leaders: He would sign off on nearly $100 million in arms sales.

He delivered that pledge in a July 2018 text to his then-girlfriend, Nadine Arslanian. The senator asked her to notify an Egyptian American businessman and friend of hers, Wael “Will” Hana, who would later supply the couple with gold bars and other valuable items, according to a three-count federal indictment accusing Menendez of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to exert his influence for the benefit of businessmen in New Jersey and the government in Cairo.

Arslanian forwarded the text message to Hana, who sent it along to two Egyptian officials, according to the indictment. One of the foreign officials replied simply with a “thumbs up” emoji.

The communication cuts to the core of the legal and political crisis facing Menendez, 69, the now twice-indicted politician who rose from humble beginnings as the son of Cuban immigrants to command vast influence in his home state and over Democratic politics nationally, as well as on the world stage as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The messages about the arms sales suggest his allegedly criminal actions started mere months after Menendez escaped legal peril in 2017. The communications put Arslanian, whom Menendez began dating in 2018 and married in 2020, at the center of the wide-ranging schemes prosecutors charged them both with orchestrating. And the purportedly off-books foreign dealings make stark the allegation by prosecutors that Menendez used the authority conferred by his rank in the Senate and his leadership on matters of foreign relations to engage in acts that went far beyond constituent services and instead constituted bribery.

Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in announcing the charges that the senator’s own website identifies certain kinds of acts benefiting constituents, such as pressuring a government agency to act in someone’s favor and intervening in a criminal case, as out of bounds. “But we allege that behind the scenes,” Williams said, “Senator Menendez was doing those things for certain people — the people who were bribing him and his wife.”

Menendez, who has said he is seeking reelection next year and rebuffed an immediate chorus of calls for his resignation, denied wrongdoing in a lengthy statement blaming “forces behind the scenes” for seeking to “dig my political grave.” He did, however, step down from his committee chairmanship — a move required under Senate Democratic Caucus rules.

“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” he said. “They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office. On top of that, not content with making false claims against me, they have attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had before she and I even met.”

The people bribing the senator and his wife, prosecutors allege, included Hana, the Egyptian American businessman and founder of a halal certification business that won exclusive rights from the government in Cairo to vouch for meat entering Egypt; Fred Daibes, a prominent real estate developer and fundraiser for Menendez who recently pleaded guilty to a financial crime and is awaiting sentencing; and Jose Uribe, who works in the trucking and insurance business and, prosecutors say, is a business associate and friend of Hana’s.

Those three businessmen were charged alongside the couple with conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. The senator and his wife were also charged with conspiracy to commit extortion as a public official. An attorney for the senator’s wife said she denies wrongdoing. Representatives for Hana and Daibes also contested the charges. An attorney for Uribe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The wide-ranging schemes in which Menendez allegedly abused his official position included providing sensitive U.S. government information to Egyptian officials and seeking to influence two criminal proceedings — a state investigation involving Uribe and his associates and a federal prosecution involving Daibes.

Allegations of a secretive campaign to aid the government in Cairo stand out not just because of Menendez’s singular power in the Senate to shape U.S. foreign policy but also because of the rebuttal he offered when asked about accusations of impropriety earlier this year. He told reporters to “look at my history with Egypt, of denying them aid, of stopping weapons sales, and a whole host of things.”

In reality, prosecutors say, he was covertly doing the opposite.

The fruits of his efforts, according to the indictment, included home furnishings, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and payments toward a mortgage, all allegedly provided by the businessmen. When authorities searched the senator’s residence in June 2022, according to the indictment, they found gold bars and envelopes of cash hidden in clothing, closets and a safe.

Amid envelopes with fingerprints traced to Daibes and his driver, prosecutors allege, one also bore Menendez’s fingerprints. Prosecutors claim Menendez performed a web search for “how much is one kilo of gold worth” a day after a driver for Daibes drove him and his wife home from the airport following a trip to Egypt in the fall of 2021.

Throughout the indictment, prosecutors use text messages and other communications from the senator’s wife to narrate allegations of wrongdoing.

“I’m surprised,” said John Molinelli, a former longtime prosecutor in Bergen County, part of the swath of northern New Jersey where Menendez cut his teeth as a politician, rising from the school board to the mayor’s office to the state legislature to Congress. “It seems that Mrs. Menendez had a lot more involvement than I originally thought.”

The government’s challenge, said Joseph A. Hayden Jr., a prominent New Jersey trial attorney, will be to “prove a quid pro quo with Senator Menendez — that money was paid for an official action or a promise of official action respecting his senatorial duties.”

Highly sensitive information

Menendez’s angry response to Friday’s indictment echoed the message he delivered outside federal district court nearly six years ago, when he avoided conviction in a prior corruption case. Jurors failed to reach a verdict on allegations that he had helped a wealthy Florida doctor in exchange for lavish gifts.

“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” the senator said in November 2017.

Three months later, he began dating Arslanian, according to the new indictment. Both were divorced. She was unemployed at the time, prosecutors say. Photos on social media show her posing in the years before she met Menendez at a restaurant opening and a fashion show, as well as with cast members from the reality television shows “Mob Wives” and “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

“Once she started dating Bob, none of us saw her much anymore,” said Diane Chessin, a friend. “She was busy accompanying Menendez to various destinations and spending time in D.C.”

Soon after Arslanian began dating the senator, she informed Hana, a longtime friend, of the relationship, according to prosecutors. The indictment alleges that Hana and Arslanian proceeded to arrange a series of meetings and dinners with the senator “at which Egyptian officials raised, among other things, requests related to foreign military sales and foreign military financing.” Menendez promised to facilitate that financing in exchange for Hana putting Arslanian on the payroll of his company “in a low-or-no-show job,” the indictment says.

Such meetings, including an early gathering in Menendez’s Senate office in March 2018, regularly occurred without the involvement of professional staff, according to the indictment. Two months later, prosecutors allege, Menendez obtained “highly sensitive” information from the State Department about U.S. Embassy staff in Cairo and conveyed it to Arslanian, who forwarded it to Hana. He then forwarded the information to an Egyptian government official, according to the indictment.

The same month, Menendez “secretly edited and ghostwrote” a letter for the government in Cairo lobbying U.S. senators for aid to Egypt, according to the indictment. He sent the letter to his then-girlfriend using his personal email account, prosecutors say. She forwarded it to Hana, according to the indictment, which alleges that the senator and his then-girlfriend deleted email communications about the matter.

But Arslanian was distraught, prosecutors claim, because Hana wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain and paying her properly. His halal certification business, called IS EG Halal, had little revenue at the time, according to the indictment.

“I have been so upset all morning,” she wrote to the senator, according to the indictment. “Will left for Egypt yesterday supposedly and now thinks he’s king of the world and has both countries wrapped around his pinky.”

A former employee of the company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to The Washington Post because of the ongoing criminal investigation, said Hana told staff that the business was “considered a government entity in Egypt.”

“His point was that we’re a small operation, but we have a bright future,” the former employee said. Steven Goldberg, a spokesperson for Hana, said his company is a “U.S. entity.”

Hana scored a big win in the spring of 2019, when the Egyptian government granted his company a monopoly on halal certification. “Seems like halal went through,” Arslanian texted Menendez that April, according to the indictment. “It might be a fantastic 2019 all the way around.”

Meanwhile, Menendez had won reelection the previous fall and was sworn in to his third term in January.

‘Middle person for a deal’

That was around the time that an accident left Arslanian without a car.

In short order, the indictment says, she received a new Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible worth more than $60,000 in exchange for Menendez’s attempts to disrupt a state criminal prosecution of one of Uribe’s associates and a state criminal investigation of one of his employees — both involving possible insurance fraud. Uribe’s aim, he had written in a message cited in the indictment, was to “kill and stop all investigation.”

The indictment alleges that two days after a dinner arranged by Arslanian, in which details of the state prosecution were presented, Menendez called a prosecutor in the New Jersey attorney general’s office “in an attempt, through advice and pressure, to cause a resolution of the prosecution.” Before the call, the indictment says, Menendez received multiple text messages from his then-girlfriend about the matter — messages both of them subsequently deleted.

Weeks later, according to the indictment, Uribe provided the senator’s then-girlfriend with $15,000 in cash. A day after that, the indictment alleges, she made a $15,000 down payment on the Mercedes-Benz. And prosecutors allege that he would later manage monthly financing payments for the car.

Arslanian texted the senator, according to the indictment: “Congratulations mon amour de la vie, we are the proud owners of a 2019 Mercedes.” When Uribe asked if she was happy, prosecutors allege, she replied, “I will never forget this.”

Uribe would continue to appeal to Arslanian for assistance and, on at least one occasion, received a call from Menendez from his Senate office a month after another meeting between the lawmaker and the state prosecutor, according to the indictment. After that call, the indictment claims, Uribe texted the senator’s then-girlfriend, “I just got a call and I am a very happy person.” A celebratory dinner involving the couple and Uribe followed, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors allege that Menendez carried out a similar effort in the ensuing years to influence the federal prosecution of Daibes in exchange for cash, furniture and gold bars.

According to the indictment, he criticized the prosecution in a meeting with Philip R. Sellinger, then a lawyer in private practice who was a potential candidate for U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey; recommended that President Biden nominate Sellinger, who was ultimately confirmed by the Senate; and sought details from Sellinger, who recused himself from the Daibes prosecution, about another attorney in his office supervising the prosecution. Menendez called that attorney at least twice, according to the indictment, on the second occasion phoning Daibes directly afterward. The indictment does not accuse Sellinger of wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, prosecutors allege, the senator’s wife met Daibes for lunch; traded text messages with him about her dealings with a jeweler; and sold off gold bars that prosecutors say they traced to Daibes.

Arslanian formed a company called Strategic International Business Consultants in June 2019, according to a corporate filing. Prosecutors say the company was “used to receive bribe payments,” citing a text message from Arslanian to a relative saying, “every time I’m in a middle person for a deal I am asking to get paid and this is my consulting company.”

‘We will make everything happen’

Strategic international consulting is just what prosecutors say Hana needed from his powerful friends. His monopoly over halal certification had raised costs for U.S. meat suppliers, prompting concern within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So he enlisted the senator’s help, according to the indictment. In May 2019, Menendez met in his Senate office with Arslanian and Hana, as well as an Egyptian intelligence official, according to prosecutors, who say the meeting was mostly about a human rights matter affecting aid to Egypt but also included a discussion about countering the Agriculture Department’s objections to Hana’s monopoly.

Two days later, prosecutors allege, Menendez called a high-level Agriculture Department official and “insisted” that the agency stop opposing the company’s status as the sole halal certifier for meat entering Egypt.

That summer, Hana used his company to make mortgage payments for Arslanian, who was facing foreclosure proceedings, according to the indictment. During a discussion about Hana’s willingness to cover that cost, prosecutors allege, Arslanian remarked that he would soon be “more powerful than the president of Egypt,” thanks to a trip she was planning to the country.

Prosecutors allege that Daibes and Uribe, associates of Hana’s, were closely involved in the scheme. A Daibes business partially owns the property where Hana’s halal certification company is located, as The Post has previously reported. In the fall of 2019, when Arslanian complained to Daibes about insufficient payments, prosecutors say, he replied, “Nadine I personally gave Bob a check for September.”

When she complained to Menendez, he told her not to put her concerns in writing, according to the indictment. “No, you should not text or email,” he allegedly replied.

Hana, however, continued to text extensively, according to messages cited in the indictment, including about assistance he claimed Menendez was providing to the Egyptian government. That fall, he referred to Menendez as “our man” in a message to an Egyptian official, according to the indictment.

The following spring, Arslanian texted that official in a message cited in the indictment: “anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen.” A few days later, she arranged for Menendez to meet with the official, whom she called “the general,” according to the indictment, which says they discussed a dam project in Ethiopia that represented a central Egyptian foreign policy objective. Promptly, according to prosecutors, Menendez penned a letter to the State Department and Treasury Department expressing concern about stalled negotiations over the project.

Cash in an envelope

Menendez and Arslanian married in the fall of 2020, amid the pandemic. And pandemic-era necessities soon arose.

In early 2021, Hana used company funds to “cause two exercise machines and an air purifier, among other items, collectively worth thousands of dollars, to be purchased online and delivered to the house of Menendez and Nadine Menendez,” according to the indictment.

In the ensuing months, the senator’s wife helped prepare Egyptian officials for questioning by U.S. lawmakers and accompanied him on a trip to Egypt, according to the indictment. A photo of a private dinner at the home of an Egyptian official shows the couple with wide smiles.

Their attitudes shifted as a probe into their conduct intensified last year, according to the indictment. They allegedly took steps to present their financial situation in a different light. Menendez wrote his wife a check for $23,000, according to prosecutors, and she wrote Uribe a check for $21,000, with a memo line stating “personal loan.” Prosecutors say Uribe stopped making payments for the Mercedes.

On March 16, 2022, Menendez filed an amended financial disclosure for 2020 revealing, for the first time, that his wife owned up to $250,000 in gold bars. Two weeks later, according to the indictment, she met with a jeweler to sell two one-kilogram gold bars. Subsequent filings would disclose additional sales of gold bullion.

Just two of the 22 one-ounce gold bars purchased by Hana, each with a unique serial number, were found during the court-authorized search of the couple’s home last year, according to the indictment. A digital search revealed photos of additional gold bars, included in the indictment, that prosecutors say were marked with serial numbers they were able to trace to Daibes.

Other photos in the indictment show envelopes and cash strewn over jackets bearing Menendez’s name, where the money was allegedly hidden.

A Democratic operative in New Jersey, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal investigation, said the alleged gifts at issue in Menendez’s previous trial, including luxury travel and campaign contributions, were too esoteric for some members of the public to understand.

“Before, you had people saying, ‘It’s not like it’s cash in an envelope,’” the operative said. “Now it’s literally gold bars and cash in an envelope.”

Sources


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