On 22 September, the 69-year-old was indicted on corruption charges for the second time in a decade.
Manhattan prosecutors are alleging that the senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, had a “corrupt relationship” with New Jersey associates Fred Daibes, Wael Hana and Jose Uribe.
The authorities claim that the couple accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for a number of schemes, such as handing sensitive government information to Egypt as well as influencing criminal investigations.
Born in 1954 to Cuban immigrants in New York City who had left the island nation just a few months earlier, the future senator was quick to join the political fray. At the age of 20, he was elected to the board of education in Union City, New Jersey.
He was then elected mayor of Union City, located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, serving between 1986 and 1992. For part of his mayoral term, he was also a member of the state’s general assembly before joining the state senate and then the US House of Representatives in January 1993. He remained in the House until his appointment to the US Senate in 2006 to fill the seat vacated by newly elected Governor Jon Corzine.
He was elected to a full term in the Senate in November of that year and won reelection in 2012 and 2018. He’s up for reelection again next year.
Mr Menendez has been the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2013, except for a stint between 2015 and 2018 when Maryland Senator Ben Cardin was the ranking member.
Facing calls for his resignation following the current indictment, Mr Menendez forcefully rejected allegations of wrongdoing in a statement, saying that “forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave.
“Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists,” he added.
In 2015, he was charged by federal prosecutors in New Jersey with conspiracy, bribery and honest services fraud in connection to allegations that he abused the power of his office.
Prosecutors argued at the time that Mr Menendez accepted more than $600,000 in political contributions, a stay at the Park Hyatt in Paris and free private jet flights in exchange for favours. The 2017 court proceedings ended in a mistrial when the jury was deadlocked, according to CNN. The senator rejected all the charges against him.
After the mistrial, a federal judge acquitted Mr Menendez of several of the charges in 2018 and the Department of Justice later dropped the rest.
In 2017, the senator made similar comments as he did on 22 September, saying, “To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are, and I won’t forget you.”
Mr Menendez has at times been a thorn in the side of both Democratic and Republican presidents on their foreign policy. Most recently, he opposed the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey over the country’s reluctance to approve Swedish NATO membership, concerns about human rights and flights over Greek airspace.
“Sweden still hasn’t received a vote from Turkey even though [President Recep] Erdogan said, ‘Yes, okay, Sweden should be in.’ He could have called the parliament. He could have had the vote. He hasn’t had it,” he said in July, according to Reuters.
Regarding Greece, he asked, “How does it work for us to have one NATO ally be belligerent to another and someone sell them F-16s?”
The indictment handed down on 22 September states that the authorities seized $100,000 worth of gold bars and more than $480,000 in cash, stuffed into envelopes and clothing, hidden in closets, as well as in a safe at their home and at their bank.
During the search of the senator’s home, agents allegedly found furniture from Mr Hana and Mr Daibes and a “luxury vehicle” paid for by Mr Uribe, the legal filing states.
The associates are also alleged to have sought to introduce Egyptian intelligence and military officials to Mr Menendez in order to create a “corrupt agreement”. This would be in exchange for Mr Menendez’s breaches of duty to benefit the government of Egypt, such as financial military support.
The senator and his wife face three counts, including conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion under colour of official right.
Mr Daibes, Mr Hana and Mr Uribe face charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.
Announcing the charges, US Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York said during a press conference that despite the senator’s website saying that he cannot interfere with investigations or otherwise improperly wield his influence as a powerful elected official, “we allege that behind the scenes, Senator Menendez was doing those things for certain people, the people bribing him and his wife.”
“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” Mr Menendez said in his statement. “They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office.”
“Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator and serve with honor and distinction,” he claimed. “Even worse, they see me as an obstacle in the way of their broader political goals.”
“To my supporters, friends and the community at large, I ask that you recall the other times the prosecutors got it wrong and that you reserve judgement. I am confident that this matter will be successfully resolved once all of the facts are presented and my fellow New Jerseyans will see this for what it is,” he concluded.
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