The government’s September indictment on corruption charges of Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, opened with a bang. Prosecutors displayed sensational photographs of gold bars, a Mercedes Benz, and piles of cash—more than $480,000—found at the home of Menendez and his wife, Nadine.
Justice may endeavor to be blind, but the prosecution of politicians is inherently political. The Justice Department failed to convict Menendez in a high-profile 2017 corruption case and doubtless is eager to take another shot at him. And while reliably liberal on many issues, Menendez has taken a hard line on Cuba and Iran as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, often thwarting Biden—and earlier Obama administration—initiatives. He’ll have zero support from the White House and Democratic Party establishment as he fights the new charges.
Menendez and his wife are charged with bribery, honest services fraud, and extortion. Also charged are three businessmen with ties to Egypt. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said the conspirators were engaged in “a corrupt relationship” that included payments by the businessmen to the Menendez couple of “hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes, including cash, gold, a Mercedes Benz, and other things of value—in exchange for Senator Menendez agreeing to use his power and influence to protect and enrich those businessmen and to benefit the Government of Egypt.”
Corruption concerns have swirled around Menendez for decades. A product of the famously corrupt Hudson County, New Jersey, political machine, Menendez was schooled in the amoral world of Union City Mayor William Musto, who hired him as aide in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, he had turned on Musto and testified at the mayor’s corruption trial. By 1986, in a campaign touting his Cuban roots and “reformer” image, he was elected mayor of Union City. From there he rose through state government and into the halls of Congress.
Judicial Watch has been ringing alarm bells about Menendez for more than a decade. In 2012, we put him on our list of Washington’s “Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians.” In 2014, we highlighted concerns about Menendez and a “never-ending saga of political corruption and cronyism.”
In 2017, it looked like the jig was up for Menendez. The Justice Department indicted him and an old friend and benefactor, Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgan, on charges of bribery and honest services fraud. The government charged that the duo conspired to corruptly influence Menendez’s “official acts” and defraud the U.S. of the “honest services of a public official.” Sound familiar?
In the new case, the government similarly charges that Menendez “agreed to take a series of official acts and breaches of his official duty” in return for bribes from the three Egypt-connected businessmen.
First, the government charges, Menendez “improperly pressured” an Agriculture Department official about an Egypt-related business directly benefiting the co-defendants.
Second, Menendez tried to “disrupt” a New Jersey state investigation related to the co-defendants.
Third, Menendez recommended appointment of a U.S. Attorney that he believed would be more friendly to one of the co-defendants under federal investigation.
Back in 2017, Judicial Watch took a close look at that first Menendez federal corruption case. We noted that a year earlier, the Supreme Court had significantly narrowed the definition of official acts and honest services fraud in the McDonnell ruling. Prosecutors now needed to prove a direct “official action” connected to an illegal payment. An “official act” must be more than “setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or hosting an event,” the court ruled. We were skeptical that prosecutors in 2017 could meet that standard. It turned out, we were right. Menendez beat the rap.
Will history repeat itself in the new Menendez prosecution?
Let’s go back to those gold bars and piles of cash. The meaning of the photos is of course to suggest corrupt intent. How could gold bars and $400,000 in cash stashed at home not be corrupt? That’s a smart media play by the prosecution.
But Menendez struck back. The cash and the gold? Blame the communists—blame Cuba—an argument that may find sympathetic ears at a jury trial. “For 30 years,” he told the media in a statement that highlighted his hardscrabble Cuban background, “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.”
Weightier perhaps is how Menendez will exploit McDonnell. We’ll have more to say on this as the trial nears, but based on the current indictment, the government could have trouble drawing a quid pro quo that will satisfy a jury. The co-defendants may have provided something (the quid, the cash, the gold) but what did they get in return (the quo)? Given what we currently know about the case, Senator Menendez appears to have been singularly unsuccessful in delivering for his friends.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Tips: email@example.com
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