When federal prosecutors raided Bob Menendez’s home in the summer of 2022, they found a staggering haul.
The US senator for New Jersey, one of the most influential and powerful Democrats in the country, had almost $500,000 in cash stuffed into jacket pockets, closets and a safe, along with 13 gold bars, two of them marked as 1kg in weight.
In the garage was a gleaming Mercedes-Benz, allegedly bought for Menendez and his wife, who has been charged along with her husband with accepting bribes in return for political favors.
“Congratulations mon amour de la vie, we are the proud owners of a 2019 Mercedes,” Nadine Mendendez texted her husband on taking possession of the black convertible in April 2019. A day earlier, prosecutors say, a New Jersey businessman, who has a previous conviction for fraud, gave her $15,000 in cash towards the car, and would eventually pay for its entire cost.
Menendez was last week accused, with his wife and three Jersey-based businessmen, of a staggering range of offenses. The story has struck a blow to the heart of Democratic politics, especially when the party is busy trying to convince an increasingly cynical electorate it is a safe pair of hands for honest American governance.
According to the charging document, Menendez used his position as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee to benefit Egypt in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes.
Menendez also used his “power and influence”, according to the indictment, to secure and maintain a lucrative contract with Egypt for a business associate. Closer to home, Menendez allegedly attempted to disrupt a New Jersey criminal prosecution on behalf of another businessman friend.
Menendez, 69, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.
Wednesday’s appearance at a federal courtroom in Manhattan marked an ignominious moment for Menendez, who said he will not step down and is still planning to run for re-election next year. But it was far from the first.
In 2015, he was charged in connection with a bribery scheme, after allegedly accepting gifts from a businessman friend, in exchange for intervening in a dispute with the government of the Dominican Republic. The case went to court in 2017, but ended in a mistrial after the jury was deadlocked.
Menendez grew up in a tenement building in Union City, New Jersey, the bilingual son of Cuban immigrants. His was the “quintessential American story”, according to his website: elected to the Union City board of education when he was 19, he then graduated from St Peter’s University in New Jersey with a law degree.
He became mayor of Jersey City in 1986, aged 32, and was a congressman by the time he was 39. In 2006, Menendez was elected to the Senate, where he became a key figure on the foreign relations committee.
The latest charges are likely to bring an end to that illustrious career. At least 18 Senate Democrats have called for Menendez to resign, along with New Jersey’s governor and most of the state’s congressmen and women.
But Menendez is fighting and says he has been “falsely accused” because he is Latino. He insists he will not step down.
Menendez told reporters he had saved the nearly $500,000 found at his home over the course of 30 years, and kept it in cash “because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba”. But he has not addressed questions about why some of the money bore the fingerprints and DNA of Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer accused of paying Menendez bribes.
The story of Menendez’s alleged corruption cannot be separated from the story of his marriage.
Menendez met Nadine Arslanian in late 2017, at an iHop – a popular chain of pancake restaurants – in Jersey City.
Menendez, a diminutive gray-haired man, was in his mid-60s at the time. That February, he and Arslanian were dating, and Menendez proposed in October 2019 at the Taj Mahal.
A video of the proposal, posted to a YouTube account called Robert&Nadine, showed Menendez singing a snippet from the song Never Enough, from the movie The Greatest Showman, before asking Arslanian to marry him. She said yes, and they married in October 2020.
At the time they met, Nadine Menendez had been friends with Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman, for many years – exchanging “thousands of text messages” – according to the indictment. Born in Egypt, Hana “maintained close connections with Egyptian officials”, prosecutors said.
In early 2018, Nadine told Hana she was dating Menendez, and by March 2018, Hana was organizing meetings between Menendez and Egyptian military officials.
Those meetings, at Menendez’s Senate office and at upscale restaurants, came as Egypt was anxious to secure American cash.
For several years prior to 2018, Egypt “had often faced resistance in obtaining foreign military financing and foreign military sales” from the US, according to the indictment, and in August 2017 the US state department said it was withholding $195m from Egypt until it could “demonstrate improvements on human rights and democracy”.
For Egypt, Menendez’s position as chair of the foreign relations committee made him a lucrative contact. A longstanding convention in the US government held that the state department would not proceed with a transfer of money to Egypt, or with the sale of military equipment, without sign-off from the chairman or ranking member of the committee.
As such, according to the indictment, “Robert Mendendez […] possessed substantial influence over the foreign military sales and foreign military financing to Egypt.”
At the meetings, organized by Hana, Egyptian officials repeatedly raised the issue of foreign military sales and foreign financing, prosecutors say. Menendez promised to “use his power and authority to facilitate such sales and financing to Egypt”, according to the indictment, in exchange for Hana putting Nadine Menendez on his company’s payroll.
Reading the indictment, one of most striking themes is how the Menendezes failed to cover their tracks. Prosecutors found a flood of text messages and emails between the pair, some of which seem to directly reference actions and payments.
On 6 May 2018, according to the indictment, Bob and Nadine Menendez met with Hana. That afternoon, Menendez asked the state department for staffing information regarding the US embassy in Cairo. The information was not formally classified, but was “deemed highly sensitive”, the indictment says, because it could pose “significant operational security concerns if disclosed to a foreign government”.
Having obtained the information, Menendez texted Nadine a full breakdown of the people who worked in the embassy, including the number of US diplomats, and the number of locally employed Egyptian staff. Nadine Menendez forwarded the message to Hana, who forwarded it to an Egyptian government official, according to the indictment.
Later that month, Menendez was again asked for his services, prosecutors say. An Egyptian official requested help in editing and drafting an email lobbying US senators to release a hold on $300m of US aid to Egypt.
Menendez “edited and ghost-wrote” the requested letter, according to the indictment, and sent the letter to Nadine Menendez from his personal email account. She sent the letter to Hana, who gave the draft to Egyptian officials.
The money did not immediately flow.
The plan, according to prosecutors, was that Hana pay money to Nadine Menendez through his company, IS EG Halal. But several months after Bob Menendez had met, and allegedly worked on behalf of, the Egyptian officials, no money had emerged.
“I have been so upset all morning,” Nadine Menendez texted her husband one day, complaining that Hana was yet to pay her any money.
In the spring of 2019, things began to look up for the Menendezes. Egypt granted Hana’s company, IS EG Halal, an “exclusive monopoly” on the certification of US food exports to Egypt over halal standards.
IS EG Halal had no experience in halal certification, but the deal provided a revenue stream from which, prosecutors allege, bribes were paid to the Menendezes – through a “consultant” company set up by Nadine Menendez in June 2019.
“Seems like halal went through. It might be a fantastic 2019 all the way around,” Nadine Menendez texted her husband on 8 April 2019, the day after IS EG Halal was awarded the Egypt deal.
With IS EG Halal now in business, money started flowing to the Menendezes.
In July of that year, IS EG Halal paid about $23,000 to Nadine Menendez’s mortgage, according to the indictment. Menendez received further checks for $10,000 in August, September and November of the same year – which Daibes allegedly helped to facilitate.
The relationship continued, according to the indictment, and the Menendezes continued to benefit, to the tune of “hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks, cash and gold”, prosecutors say.
Along the way, the Mercedes-Benz was purchased for the delighted Nadine Menendez with money allegedly provided by Hana and Jose Uribe, one of the co-defendants and a businessman who has a previous conviction for fraud.
The Mercedes was acquired after Menendez allegedly promised to intervene to disrupt the New Jersey prosecution of a friend of Uribe, in an example of how Menendez’s services were available both home and abroad.
Sometimes the alleged bribes were more prosaic – expensive furniture, two exercise machines and an air purifier were bought for the couple by IS EG Halal – but still amounted to thousands of dollars.
In the indictment, prosecutors have asked that the couple be required to forfeit to the government their home, the Mercedes, and the $480,000 in cash, plus $79,760 found in a safe deposit box, and all their gold bars.
As for Menendez’s political career, it may now be forever associated with the photos released by investigators from his home: the almost parody-of-corruption images showing money stuffed into pockets, and gold bars laid out on paper towels.
One of the jackets Menendez used to store his cash had his political title emblazoned on the chest: Senator Menendez. If prosecutors – and many of his colleagues – have their way, the New Jerseyite will be called that no more.