Amid the gold bars, Mercedez-Benz, and meat-related allegations, it’s easy to miss a central charge in the indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ): it’s about foreign influence.
Menendez faces three counts of public corruption in the indictment, but prosecutors spend the first 30 paragraphs homing in on the senator’s alleged relationship with the government of Egypt.
Prosecutors allege a stunning series of interactions for the position which Menendez held until last week: chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. The New Jersey Democrat allegedly held secret meetings with Egyptian military and intelligence officials in which he supplied them with sensitive information and assisted them in managing relations with the U.S. government.
The relationship allegedly played out via a series of cutouts, one of whom is Menendez’s wife. Prosecutors say that Menendez undertook key official acts to benefit Cairo, including:
- ghostwriting a letter to lobby senators to release a $300 million hold on U.S. aid;
- revealing the makeup of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo; and
- secretly helping a senior Egyptian official prepare for a meeting with senators
In return, Manhattan federal prosecutors say, Menendez and his wife received payments, gold bars, and amenities including two exercise machines and an air purifier.
Though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) largely shut the door last week on forcing Menendez to resign, the charges have sparked members of the New Jersey delegation and other senators to call for him to step down. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said in a Tuesday statement calling for his resignation that the allegations suggest Menendez was compromised, and added that its best for “our national security for the Senator to step down.”
Menendez has denied the accusations, saying at a Monday morning appearance that prosecutors had framed the charges “to be as salacious as possible,” while vowing that he would be exonerated.
It was through a series of meetings – some at high-end restaurants, others in Menendez’s Senate offices – that prosecutors say Menendez agreed to provide critical information to the Egyptians.
What the indictment describes as “acts and breaches of duty to benefit the Government of Egypt” began in March 2018. Menendez had begun dating Nadine Arslanian the month before, an unemployed New Jerseyan with a close Egypt-born friend named Wael Hana.
Hana himself purportedly had close ties to officials in Egypt’s military and intelligence worlds. Within weeks of Menendez striking up the new relationship, prosecutors said, Hana and Arslanian were arranging meetings between the senator and Egyptian military officials.
Those meetings were allegedly fruitful. In March 2018, an unnamed Egyptian military official allegedly met with the senator in his D.C. offices in a meeting attended and organized by Hana and Arslanian. Menendez’s staff allegedly were not present.
Two months later, in May 2018, prosecutors describe the first instances included in the indictment when Menendez began to help out Egyptian officials. Typically, Arslanian would act as a go-between from Menendez to Hana, or from Menendez to Egyptian officials. Menendez would allegedly use access he had as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide information to Arslanian, who would then send it to Hana, who then would forward it to Egyptian officials.
Egypt relies on the U.S. for more than a billion dollars per year in security assistance and other forms of aid. As Senate Foreign Relations chair, Menendez had the power to approve – or delay – huge swaths of aid.
Prosecutors allege that the senator made these decisions to benefit Egypt.
In May 2018, $300 million in Egypt aid was held up in the Senate. At the time, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) had reportedly placed a hold on the funding, though the indictment doesn’t specify who started the hold.
Prosecutors say that Menendez agreed to provide extensive help to Egypt that month. In one instance, he purportedly edited and ghost-wrote a letter to persuade senators to release the $300 million hold. Menendez allegedly forwarded the draft to Arslanian, “facilitating Hana’s conveyance” of the draft back to Egyptian officials.
In July 2018, Arslanian and Hana allegedly arranged a meeting between Menendez and Egyptian military officials. The meeting included a discussion of approval for foreign military aid to Egypt.
The day after, prosecutors said, Menendez texted Arslanian that he would “sign off” on a sale of $99 million worth of ammunition. Arslanian forwarded the text to Hana, prosecutors say, who sent it to two Egyptian officials. One of them purportedly replied with a thumbs-up emoji.
Menendez’s help for Egypt allegedly continued into 2021.
In July 2021, in what prosecutors characterized as a “private meeting” at a D.C. hotel arranged by Arslanian, Menendez allegedly helped an unnamed senior Egyptian intelligence official prepare for a meeting with senators the next day. The indictment references an article which matches a story by Mike Isikoff outlining questions that senators had about Egypt’s human rights record.
At the meeting, unknown to his fellow senators, Menendez allegedly helped the official – the head of Egypt’s intelligence service, per the article – prepare for a gamut of questions including ones about Cairo’s role in Saudi Arabia’s killing of Jamal Khashogghi.
The day after the meeting, prosecutors say, Hana bought 22 one-ounce gold bars. Prosecutors said that federal agents would find two of them in a search of the Menendez’s home the next year.
The Role Of Menendez’s Wife
For the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that’s a lot of favors.
But the sprawling network of people around Menendez allegedly kept benefits flowing both to the senator and to his wife.
Nadine Arslanian, who took Menendez’s last name after they wed in 2020, has a mystifying status in the indictment. Prosecutors portray her as acting aggressively to help Hana and Egyptian officials ingratiate themselves with Menendez. And Menendez was allegedly willing to use his clout within the U.S. government to ensure that she got paid. That took place via a byzantine scheme involving a no-show job which Hana promised Arslanian at his halal meat export company.
Oddly enough, prosecutors say, the firm – IS EG Halal – had “little to no revenue” when the scheme allegedly began. But after Arslanian began to push for her payment, Hana allegedly struck a deal with the Egyptian government. Cairo would grant the company a monopoly on halal meat imports to Egypt from the U.S., starting May 1, 2019.
“Seems like halal went through. It might be a fantastic 2019 all the way around,” Arslanian allegedly texted Menendez.
Per a USDA report released after the monopoly began, the change threatened to raise the price for certifying halal meat for export to Egypt from up to $20 per ton to $220 per ton. The report identified Hana as one of the two incorporators of the company, and added that it was “not known to have a preexisting relationship with the U.S. beef industry or Islamic organizations in the United States.” Mada Masr, an Egyptian news outlet, reported that the halal export company worked closely with a firm that it linked to Cairo’s intelligence services.
Arslanian purportedly started to get paid. But after the USDA started to oppose the monopoly, and after a May 2019 meeting allegedly between Hana, Arslanian, and an unnamed Egyptian intelligence official held in Menendez’s office, the senator acted. He called a USDA official to ask the agency to stop opposing the monopoly.
That didn’t work, but Hana allegedly continued to pay Arslanian via the company. Funds from the halal company allegedly were used to buy two exercise machines and an air purifier for the couple.
Months before the FBI executed search warrants at the couple’s home in June 2022, they allegedly were still demonstrating their usefulness to Egyptian officials. In January 2022, the senator allegedly sent Arslanian an article about two military sales to Egypt worth $2.5 billion. Arslanian then sent it to Hana, noting: “Bob had to sign off on this.”