High-Handed Corruption: the Menendez File

Photograph Source: Senator Bob Menendez – Public Domain

New Jersey Senator Bob “Googling Gold Ingots” Menendez is in hot water. He’s been in hot water ever since September, when federal investigators brought bribery charges against him. The bribes were allegedly paid by Wael Hanna and two others to Menendez and his wife, Nadine, for benefits to Egypt, including continued military aid. Democrat Menendez had the good sense to step down from his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but as of December, he still defies those in Congress and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who have urged him to resign from the Senate altogether.

So the 17-year Senator Menendez has not yet had the decency to retire from public life. Senator Al Franken made an off-color joke and was booted from the senate chamber by ferociously offended #Me-Too-ers. Menendez, who reportedly took furnishings, a luxury convertible, gold bars, checks and cash from foreign businessmen in exchange for allegedly betraying his country still not only dares to show his face in the Senate but brazenly refuses to leave.

Then on December 1, Pennsylvania Democratic senator John Fetterman renewed his call for the Senate to expel Menendez. This exhortation came in the wake of the ejection from Congress of New York GOP representative George Santos, with Fetterman insisting convincingly that the allegations against Menendez are “more sinister” than those facing Santos. “He needs to go,” Fetterman said of Menendez on ABC’s “The View.” “And if you are going to expel Santos, how can you allow somebody like Menendez to remain in the Senate?” Arguably Santos should not have been expelled for infractions like claiming to have landed on the moon. Santos was the House GOPS’s well-deserved booby-prize. The same is not true of Menendez. His alleged crimes are serious and dangerous. So is this whole corruption scandal. No matter how accustomed they are to deferring to senior senator Menendez, the chamber’s Dems need to wake up and ditch him.

This was brought to the public’s attention again, December 4, when the New York Post reported that gold bars found in Menendez’s home were linked to a 2013 armed robbery. They had been stolen from Fred Daibes, then returned by police. How fitting that Daibes later reportedly saw fit to gift that gold to a sitting senator as part of an alleged bribery scheme.

“Prosecutors allege that in March 2022, Daibes gave Nadine two gold bars of a kilogram each – when gold went for $60,000 per kilogram. Daibes’ driver’s fingerprints were later discovered on an envelope containing thousands of dollars in cash that was recovered from the [Menendez’s] home. In total, 13 gold bars and $566,000 in cash, some stuffed into the pockets of the senator’s jackets, were found by the FBI during its investigation into the alleged bribery scheme.” The Post notes that if he’s convicted, “Menendez faces up to 45 years in prison.” Maybe Menendez figures he’ll get off easy and wind up the first senator in the history of the republic to show up for votes wearing an ankle monitor.

Just so you know exactly what Menendez allegedly did: he has been charged with using his “official position to benefit Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, Fred Daibes and the Government of Egypt in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes…” announced the Department of Justice press release September 22. “Among other things, Menendez…sought to pressure a senior official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in an effort to protect a business monopoly granted to Hana by Egypt, disrupt a criminal case…related to associates of Uribe” and a federal case against Daibes.

On October 23, Menendez pleaded not guilty to yet another, a foreign agent charge. “We are innocent. We are going to prove it,” the New Jersey senator asserted after the court hearing. This new, late October criminal charge alleges that Menendez, his wife and Hana “willfully and knowingly combined, conspired, confederated…” to have Menendez illegally “act as an agent of a foreign principal.” Earlier, by September 26, over half of all Dem senators had already called for Menendez’s resignation. He wasn’t listening then, and he wasn’t listening after the October charge, either.

That may be because Menendez has a slim reason to consider himself invulnerable. What reason, you ask? Well, back in November 2017 Menendez’s federal corruption case ended in a mistrial, because the jurors couldn’t reach a verdict. According to the New York Times November 16, 2017, Menendez was defiant, declaring, “the way this case started was wrong, the way it was investigated was wrong, the way it was prosecuted was wrong and the way it was tried was wrong as well.” No doubt the sleazy senator figures what he did once – his Houdini-like escape from the clutches of the criminal justice system – he can replicate with this latest fiasco.

Emboldened by this 2017 mistrial, Menendez remained in the Senate. But “with every conceivable advantage going into the 2018 Democratic Senate primary,” according to the New Jersey Globe September 29, 2023, “he had 12 years of incumbency, unified Democratic support…[and]federal charges…dropped following a mistrial” –still Menendez received only 62 percent of the vote. “Nearly 160,000 votes went to his opponent, a total unknown…” But he then went on to beat his GOP adversary, Bob Hugin – naturally, as New Jersey is a very blue state. This is despite Hugin’s constant attack ads reminding the public of Menendez’s questionable ethics.

So, two contradictory lessons emerged for the senator from his last campaign: the whiff of corruption alienated Dem voters, but had little impact in the general election. Menendez, who insists he will run in 2024 for his fourth full term, appears to have concluded he can weather a storm of bribery, lying and financial chicanery charges and even possibly whispered allegations of treason. He emerged from the first hullaballoo about his shady ethics with his narcissism intact. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s convinced no new indictment can dent him, despite the very serious nature of this case.

How serious? To repeat, charges like selling his senate influence to a foreign nation to the tune of 13 gold bars, over half a million dollars in cash, a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz convertible and more. That stinks to high heaven. Even for a bigwig who previously beat a corruption rap. Whether he lands in jail or no, Menendez remaining in Congress is a disgrace. The Senate’s failure to expel him is repulsive, especially when it has tossed out others for less. Menendez’s continued tenure erodes the Senate’s already dilapidated reputation and constantly reminds an extremely disillusioned public that most people in Congress are for sale.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.