Politics / September 22, 2023

Robert Menendez’s Family Business

The New Jersey senator was indicted by the Justice Department for a series of charges straight out of The Sopranos.

Chris Lehmann
Robert Menendez President's Day Recess

Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) rides in the Senate subway as he leaves the Senate chambers on February 16, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Say what you will about New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, but he’s not an empty suit. Among the many lurid details in the Justice Department’s indictment of the sitting chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on corruption charges, one stood out as being just a bit too on the nose: Menendez and his cash-hungry wife, Nadine, had squirreled away more than $480,000 in loose cash in their New Jersey home, the way one does—some of it bundled in the senator’s suit jackets bearing his name and the US Senate insignia. 

If that symbolism somehow strikes you as insufficiently cartoonish, read on: The indictment also explains how $100,000 worth of gold bars were found in the Menendez’s spread—the sort of old-school pelf worship associated with Scrooge McDuck. Still not enough? Well, how about Menendez returning from a junket to Egypt, only to Google the value of a kilogram of gold?

While the details of the myriad payoffs catalogued in the indictment seem like the sort of buffoonery you’d encounter in the American Hustle blooper reel, the underlying charges are quite serious. The indictment charges that Menendez “promised to and did use his influence and breach his official duty” in the service of three New Jersey businessmen, Wael Hana, Fred Daibes, and Jose Uribe. Menendez also allegedly procured important favors on behalf of the state of Egypt, among the world’s largest recipients of US military aid. (In a statement, the senator has denied all the charges as the handiwork of opponents who “see me as an obstacle in the way of their broader political goals.” )

According to the indictment, Menendez furnished sensitive information to the Egyptian government while restoring previously denied military funding. On the domestic front, meanwhile, he’s charged with improperly intervening in a New Jersey state attorney general investigation of Uribe, while maneuvering to secure the appointment of a US Attorney who he thought could be bent toward the interests of Daibes, then fending off his own federal indictment. (The attorney in question, Phillip R. Sellinger, has not been charged with any wrongdoing.) To underline the flagrant character of Menendez’s abuses, the indictment cites language from the senator’s website, informing constituents that “our office cannot compel an agency to act in your favor or expedite your case; overturn or influence matters involving private business” or “intervene with judicial issues, provide legal advice or recommend an attorney.” Evidently, no footnoted disclaimer went on to stipulate: “at least not without boatloads of ready cash or gold bars.”

Menendez’s indictment was lurid, but not exactly shocking. In 2015, the senator faced federal bribery charges in New Jersey in a purported scheme to furnish legislative favors to a wealthy donor in exchange for more than $1 million in backsheesh. A 2018 trial produced a hung-jury mistrial, which eventually led to a partial acquittal, with the US Attorney’s office finally dropping the balance of the charges.

But to paraphrase Menendez’s Senate colleague Susan Collins of Maine, the veteran graft-broker does not appear to have learned his lesson. In Menendez’s dealings with Egypt, his wife, Nadine, whom he married in 2020, proved a central player. The two began dating in late 2018, and not long afterward Nadine arranged for an introduction to Wael Hana, who boasted a range of connections to the Egyptian government. (Another revealing vignette from the indictment has Menendez texting Nadine about the pending approval of a $99 million tank deal for Egypt; she promptly forwarded the text to an unnamed Egyptian official, who replied with a thumbs-up emoji.) The indictment says that Hana ponied up $23,000 to Nadine’s mortgage lender to stave off foreclosure proceedings against her, and that after the senator had acted to resolve a criminal matter unspecified in the indictment, Hana and Uribe procured a Mercedes convertible for Nadine from a dealership in Edison, N.J. In another only-in-Jersey flourish, Uribe handed her the $15,000 down payment in a restaurant parking lot, which got him this effusive thank-you text: “​​You are a miracle worker who makes dreams come true I will always remember that.” He worked the same miracle on the balance of the $60,000 due on the car, paying off half, according to the indictment.

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These sort of Mob-style shenanigans sit awkwardly alongside the sober deliberations one might expect from the Senate’s Foreign Relations chair, but Menendez hasn’t exactly been an unknown quantity to the Democratic Senate leadership. Instead of dumping the scandal-plagued senator after his last gruesome brush with the law, majority leader Chuck Shumer spent lavishly on his 2018 reelection effort, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by well over a million in the Garden State. Menendez is again up for election next year, and it seems likely that even the profoundly inertia-prone Democratic establishment will be forced to enlist a more viable candidate; so far, Joe Signorello III, mayor of the small town of Union Park, is Menendez’s only announced primary opponent.

Under Senate rules, Menendez will hand over his foreign affairs gavel during the course of his arraignment and trial—an outcome that can only be a policy gain, in addition to an anti-corruption bonus. Menendez’s tenure has not only been a feather-bedding exercise for major recipients of US aid such as Egypt and Israel; on his watch, the Foreign Relations Committee has also routinely elevated the testimony of interested state actors over that of reformers, dissidents, and civil-society groups. Given what we know of how the senator handles his private affairs, that’s not exactly a shock, but it’s still a baleful development for anyone looking to see American foreign policy roughly aligned with the forces of democratic reform and accountability.

It’s true that rampant corruption has been a signature New Jersey political export. The Progressive-era muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens labeled it “the traitor state” early in the 20th century, and little about New Jersey’s operational social compact has changed since. Indeed, another head-spinning spectacle on today’s political scene is seeing Chris Christie—the former US Attorney who had launched a 2006 corruption inquiry against Menendez, only to go on as governor to stage manage “Bridgegate,” one of the most gloriously petty state political scandals in modern memory—now running for president as the straitlaced Never Trump conscience of the Republican party. Then again, of course, Menendez himself voted in favor of Trump’s 2019 impeachment for manipulating military aid to Ukraine on baldly political terms—a pay-to-play deal that’s almost structurally identical to what Menendez is alleged to have done in the case of Egypt’s military aid package. It’s generally a good rule of thumb, in other words, to be wary of New Jersey pols seizing the mantle of reform; also, it’s probably a good precaution to see what they’re carrying in their jacket.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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