The top lawmaker on the US Senate’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee on Monday brushed aside calls from members of his own party to resign as he faces federal corruption charges involving alleged favors for the government of Egypt.
“I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I will still be New Jersey’s senior senator,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said during a press conference in Union City, NJ.
“The court of public opinion is no substitute for our revered justice system,” Menendez said, adding, “Prosecutors get it wrong sometimes.”
Menendez faces calls from prominent New Jersey Democrats including Governor Kathy Hochul to resign over the indictment, in which prosecutors allege the influential foreign relations chair abused his position to facilitate US foreign arms sales to Egypt.
BREAKING: Senate Foreign Relations Chair Sen. Bob Menendez’ responds to federal corruption allegations involving Egyptian government:
“I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I will still be New Jersey’s senior senator.”
— Jared Szuba (@JM_Szuba) September 25, 2023
Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Friday evening Menendez would temporarily step down as head of Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.) became the first Democrat in Congress’ upper house to call upon the foreign relations chair to resign on Saturday. Other democratic senators including Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and number-two Democrat Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have issued critical statements underscoring the gravity of the allegations but have stopped short of calling on Menendez to resign.
On Friday, the US attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment against Menendez alleging he took bribes in the form of cash, gold bars and a Mercedes convertible in coordination with three New Jersey businessmen, among them Egyptian-born Wael Hana, in exchange for favors, some of which aided the Egyptian government.
The senator stands accused of passing potentially compromising information to Hana about the number and nationality of personnel working at the US Embassy in Cairo, as well as assuring Hana that he would sign off on US arms sales requested by the Egyptian government — information which Hana then passed on to Egyptian officials.
The allegations in the indictment of Senator Menendez are shocking. If accurate, they represent the most profound betrayal of his oath of office.
He’s entitled to the presumption of innocence and will have his day in court. But the gravity of the matter demands his resignation.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) September 23, 2023
Hana, who founded the New Jersey-based company IS EG Halal in 2017, was granted a monopoly by the Egyptian government in May 2019 over all halal inspections for meat imported to Egypt from the United States, despite having no experience with halal inspections.
Mada Masr, one of the only remaining Egypt-based news outlets that hasn’t fallen under state control, reported at the time that IS EG Halal was granted the monopoly in cooperation with a firm linked to Egyptian intelligence and that the monopoly also extended to Egypt’s halal import certifications from South America.
The move boxed out several other firms previously contracted to do such work, resulting in an increase of 32.1% in prices in Egypt of beef liver — kibdeh — a staple food of the country’s middle and lower classes.
The resulting hike in prices for US meat suppliers led the US Department of Agriculture to press Egypt’s government to revoke the monopoly. Menendez, prosecutors allege, called a senior USDA official to insist that the agency stop its objections to IS EG Halal’s monopoly following a request to do so by Hana during a meeting two days prior in the senator’s office at which an unnamed senior Egyptian official was present. Prosecutors say the USDA official did not comply with Menendez’s demand, but Hana’s firm retained its monopoly nonetheless.
Hana was introduced to Menendez through his then-girlfriend and now-wife Nadine, nee Arslanian, whom prosecutors allege was granted a “low- or no-show job” on Hana’s payroll in exchange for the senator agreeing to use his position to facilitate US foreign military sales to Egypt, which have faced unprecedented opposition among lawmakers since Egypt’s 2013 coup.
Alleged lobbying for Egyptian government
The senator is also accused of ghostwriting a letter on behalf of an Egyptian official lobbying other lawmakers in 2018 to release $300 million in military aid which had been withheld over Egypt’s human rights abuses. Menendez is also alleged to have helped a senior Egyptian official prepare for a meeting with members of Congress during a visit to Washington by the latter in June 2021.
The foreign relations chair allegedly met with the senior Egyptian official privately at a hotel one day prior to the latter’s meeting with lawmakers. Members of Congress were expected to press the official on human rights. Menendez also allegedly forwarded an article via his wife to the Egyptian official.
“I just thought it would be better to know ahead of time what is being talked about and this way you can prepare your rebuttals,” Nadine Menendez texted the Egyptian official, according to prosecutors.
While the senior Egyptian official is unnamed in the indictment, the described visit coincides with a delegation led by Cairo’s intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel. The visit came as the Biden administration was weighing withholding a portion of Washington’s annual military aid, which Congress conditioned on improvements in the Egyptian government’s widespread human rights abuses.
Politico later reported that during that Kamel’s visit, the Egyptian spy chief had sought to convince US lawmakers and congressional staffers that Obama administration officials had agreed that Egyptian-born US citizen and activist Mohamed Soltan would face life imprisonment in the United States upon his release from prison in Egypt in 2015.
Soltan, the son of a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member, had been imprisoned in Egypt in 2013 on terrorism-related charges including spreading “false news,” following a coup led by then-top general and now-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that deposed Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood party.
Sisi’s subsequent crackdown on Brotherhood supporters and liberal dissenters alike has left tens of thousands languishing in prisons on what rights groups say are politically motivated charges.
Menendez’s indictment marks a stinging embarrassment for the Biden administration, which has continued to rely on Sisi’s government to support Washington’s policies in the Middle East despite vowing to lead a human rights-based approach to foreign affairs.
The State Department announced just two weeks ago it had issued a waiver to release $235 million of the annual military aid to Cairo out of $320 million conditioned by lawmakers on human rights improvements.
That’s significantly more than the $130 million the Biden administration agreed to withhold over the previous two years, but comprises only a fraction of the total $1.3 billion in annual military aid Egypt receives from Washington.
Biden, who on the campaign trail vowed “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” has faced pressure from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in to rein in US funding for Egypt’s military.
Menendez on Monday cited his own record in Congress on Egypt.
“Throughout my time in Congress, I have remained steadfast on the side of civil society and human rights defenders in Egypt and everywhere else in the world,” the foreign relations chair said Monday.
“If you look at my actions related to Egypt, during the period described in this indictment and throughout my whole career, my record is clear and consistent in holding Egypt accountable for its unjust detention of American citizens and others,” Menendez said.
Federal investigators found in Menendez’s home more than $480,000 in cash, much of it stuffed in envelopes and hidden in clothing, including a jacket bearing the senator’s name, according to the indictment. Investigators alleged some of the envelopes contained DNA and fingerprints from one of those indicted in the corruption ring, Hana’s associate Fred Daibes.
“For 30 years, I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba,” Menendez claimed during Monday’s press conference.
“Those who are now attempting to malign my actions as it relates to Egypt simply don’t know the facts,” the senator said.
In a statement released by the senator’s office following the release of the indictment on Friday, Menendez accused federal prosecutors of having “misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office.”