Gold bars, wads of cash and halal meat: The case against Bob Menendez explained

A formerly-indicted New Jersey senator has found himself at the center of another corruption investigation, this time concerning allegations of accepting gold bars, a Mercedes-Benz and cash in exchange for political favors. Ariana Baio explains the case against Bob Menendez

Sunday 12 May 2024 18:08 BST
Bob Menendez leaves Manhattan court after pleading not guilty to corruption charges

Sometime in 2022, federal prosecutors in Manhattan ramped up a corruption investigation into three-term, New Jersey Senator Robert “Bob” Menendez who was also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The investigation into Mr Menendez had roots in a separate criminal inquiry into a fledgling halal meat-certifying company that went from starting production, with no prior experience, to having a lucrative, exclusive deal with the Egyptian government in a matter of months.

The president of the halal meat start-up, a New Jersey businessman named Wael Hana, had seemingly given Mr Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, lavish gifts in exchange for helping him secure the deal.

It marks the second criminal corruption investigation the senator has faced during his tenure – and one that he quickly brushed off as a “politically-motivated smear campaign”.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and his wife, Nadine Menendez, arrive at the federal courthouse in New York in September 2023 after being charged with bribery
Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and his wife, Nadine Menendez, arrive at the federal courthouse in New York in September 2023 after being charged with bribery (The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

But prosecutors soon learned that the potentially lavish gifts that Mr Menendez accepted went much further than helping Mr Hana secure a deal. Another investor in the company, businessman Fred Daibes, had allegedly used Mr Menendez to help him secure funding for his residential skyscraper development project, and landed an investment from a Qatari royal family member.

On a Thursday morning in June 2022, federal investigators descended on the Menendez’s New Jersey home and made a stunning discovery: 13 gold bars worth over $100,000; a Mercedes-Benz convertible; and more than $480,000 in cash stuffed into envelopes and hidden in coats, jackets and boots.

Fifteen months later, Mr Menendez, his wife and the two businessmen found themselves at the center of an indictment accusing them of brazenly engaging in a bribery scheme and attempting to obstruct justice. Mr Menendez was also accused of conspiring to act as a foreign agent to the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

The halal meat company scandal that sparked an investigation

Mr Hana, an Egyptian-American businessman, was struggling financially in 2018 after several failed business ventures.

In the year prior, he had incorporated a halal meat-certifying company called IS EG Halal. Its job was to certify that exported meat was prepared in accordance with Islamic law for millions of Americans – though he had no prior experience in halal certification.

At that same time, his longtime friend, Nadine Arslanian, began dating Mr Menendez who held a powerful position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She introduced her boyfriend to Mr Hana, who had ties to Egyptian officials.

In April 2019, just months after IS EG Halal began production, Mr Hana managed to strike a deal with the Egyptian government to become the sole company to certify halal meat.

Wael Hana leaves the federal courthouse in New York on Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Wael Hana leaves the federal courthouse in New York on Tuesday, September 26, 2023 (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Prosecutors say that the deal was struck, in part, thanks to Mr Menendez, who “improperly advised and pressured” a US agricultural official to maintain a contract despite risks that the monopoly would disrupt the market.

In exchange for helping the deal go through, Mr Hana allegedly gifted Mr Menendez and his wife mortgage payments, gold bars and cash. He also put Ms Menendez on his company payroll for a “low-or-no-show job” only if Mr Menendez could facilitate more sales of military equipment to Egypt, according to court filings.

At the same time, federal prosecutors say that Mr Menendez gave Mr Hana highly sensitive information about the US embassy in Cairo who then allegedly gave it to an Egyptian official.

Mr Menendez later ghost-wrote a letter on behalf of the government of Egypt, asking his Senate colleagues to release a hold on $300m in US aid to Egypt, then deleted an email in which his wife asked him to do that, say prosecutors.

Cash found at Senator Menendez’s home during FBI raid in June 2022
Cash found at Senator Menendez’s home during FBI raid in June 2022 ((U.S. Attorney’s Office))

A development project in need of investors

At the same time Mr Menendez was helping Mr Hana, prosecutors allege he was also helping Mr Daibes, a real estate developer in New Jersey.

Around 2021, Mr Daibes was looking for a new investor to help back his residential skyscraper development project in Edgewater, New Jersey. He turned to his longtime ally, Mr Menendez, for help.

Years earlier, Mr Menendez had helped Mr Daibes when he faced a federal indictment accusing him of conspiring to defraud a bank he founded, prosecutors say. The New Jersey senator allegedly accepted various bribes from Mr Daibes in exchange for intervening by installing a new US attorney. However, the plan was unsuccessful.

Fred Daibes appeared at federal court in March 2024
Fred Daibes appeared at federal court in March 2024 (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Now facing the dire need for financial backing to continue his real estate project, Mr Daibes allegedly invoked a similar tactic, according to court filings.

Prosecutors say Mr Menendez accepted luxury watches, a gold bar and cash from Mr Daibes “knowing” that he expected him to “induce the Qatari Investment Company to invest with Dabies”.

Mr Menendez eventually did introduce Mr Daibes to an unnamed investor who was also a member of the Qatari royal family. While Mr Daibes tried to secure a deal with the Qatari investor, Mr Menendez made multiple public statements expressing support for Qatar and then forwarded them to Mr Daibes to share with the investor and a Qatari government official, according to court documents.

Days after the investment was secured, Mr Menendez, his wife and Mr Daibes met for dinner. Hours later, Mr Menendez allegedly Googled “one kilo gold price”.

Two of the gold bars found during a search by federal agents of Senator Bob Menendez's home and safe deposit box in New Jersey
Two of the gold bars found during a search by federal agents of Senator Bob Menendez's home and safe deposit box in New Jersey (U.S. Attorney's Office)

Luxury vehicle payments create a path to more charges

During this time, prosecutors say Mr Menendez also accepted payments for a Mercedes-Benz convertible to help a third New Jersey businessman, Mr Uribe, with a criminal investigation.

Several of Mr Uribe’s associates were under an insurance fraud investigation and he sought Mr Menendez’s political influence to help with that, according to prosecutors. In return, Mr Uribe arranged for the Menendezes to receive payments for Nadine’s luxury vehicle.

Mr Uribe initially pled not guilty to charges in the first indictment but changed his plea in March, agreeing to help the government with their case.

He revealed to prosecutors that Mr Menendez and his wife attempted to cover up the car payments by misrepresenting them as a loan rather than a bribe once the couple learned they were under investigation. In turn, the couple and Mr Uribe lied to their lawyers, he said.

The’ Mercedes-Benz convertible, belonging to Nadine Menendez, that prosecutors claim was paid for with bribes
The’ Mercedes-Benz convertible, belonging to Nadine Menendez, that prosecutors claim was paid for with bribes (US Attorney’s Office)

Mr Uribe’s revelation led prosecutors to expand the charges against the co-defendants to include obstruction of justice.

In total, Mr Menendez faces 16 felony charges, including bribery, extortion, acting as a foreign agent and obstruction of justice. Should a jury decide to convict him, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

His trial begins on Monday.

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