Prosecutors tucked a strange yet telling episode into the indictment of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
It was May 2018, months after Menendez struck up a relationship with Nadine Arslanian, the woman who allegedly introduced him to the world of Egyptian pay-for-play. One of his new purported Egyptian benefactors had a problem: The Senate had placed a hold on some $300 million of the $1.3 billion in military aid that Washington sends to Cairo each year. The benefactor, who Arslanian allegedly described as “the General,” wanted to see if Menendez could use his skills and knowledge to help him draft a message to senators, seeking to release the funds.
“In response, MENENDEZ secretly edited and ghost-wrote the requested letter on behalf of Egypt seeking to convince other U.S. Senators to release a hold on $300 million in aid to Egypt,” the indictment reads.
It’s not clear from the indictment what the reason for the hold was, or what elements of U.S. policy towards Egypt much of Menendez’s alleged corruption influenced.
But in this case, TPM was able to identify the policy that Menendez allegedly received gold bars and income from a no-show halal import job via his wife to thwart.
It has to do with the case of April Corley, an American roller skating star who found herself on the wrong end of a U.S.-supplied Apache helicopter operated by the Egyptian military in 2015.
The chopper strafed a tour group Corley was traveling with in Egypt’s desert, killing 12 while leaving her severely maimed. Corley has spent years trying to obtain a financial settlement from Cairo for what the Egyptian government has called an “accident.”
In May 2018, a report from the time describes, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) had taken up the case. Leahy put a hold on a portion of the $300 million in aid set to go to Egypt in part over the Corley case, while the rest of the hold existed to push Cairo to address other human rights concerns.
Tim Rieser, an aide to Leahy’s for 38 years until the senator retired, confirmed to TPM that the hold described in the indictment related to Corley’s case.
“Senator Leahy and others were trying to hold the Egyptians accountable for April’s injuries that were caused by the Egyptian military, for which they never took responsibility or even apologized,” Rieser told TPM.
The letter forms a central part of the allegations against Menendez: that in exchange for money and favors from the Egyptian government, he used knowledge and influence that he had as a senator to act in Cairo’s interests.
“It’s pretty disturbing for obvious reasons,” Rieser said of the allegations in the indictment.
“During that period we never had any idea of what has recently been alleged, that Senator Menendez was trying to help the Egyptians behind the scenes,” he added.
Menendez pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan federal courtroom on Wednesday. He’s said that prosecutors twisted his actions.
“Those who are now attempting to malign my actions as it relates to Egypt simply don’t know the facts,” he told reporters on Monday.
His office did not return a request for comment from TPM about the case, and about whether he had met with Corley. TPM’s attempts to reach a representative to speak on Corley’s behalf were unsuccessful.
Since 1978, Washington has sent $50 billion in military assistance to Cairo in the form of an annual $1.3 billion stipend. Guaranteed by the Camp David Accords, the money remains a controversial part of the complicated and often tenuous U.S. relationship with Egypt.
“It’s corrupting because it’s a quid pro quo transaction rather than a strategic relationship,” Nancy Okail, president of the Center for International Policy, told TPM.
Okail experienced the $300 million hold personally.
In 2013, an Egyptian court sentenced her in absentia to five years in prison as part of a larger case brought against local civil society groups and foreign NGOs.
Okail told TPM that her case received attention from Congress in part because U.S.-funded NGOs – like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute – were affected.
But she added that her impression of the relationship between Congress, the annual stipend, and Egypt was that it was a ripe opportunity for corruption, in part because the ties themselves had become so transactional.
“Every time Egypt had a request or wants to buy Abrams tanks or F15s or whatever, they would arrest high-profile human rights advocates or opposition members and these became bargaining chips,” Okail told TPM. “And once they release them and get what they want, they arrest 10 more.”
Corley’s case didn’t fit that profile.
There’s no public indication of any kind of settlement having been reached in her case. But she’s spent years trying to pressure the Egyptian government into some form of compensation for the damages she suffered in the helicopter attack. Sen. Leahy’s hold on some of the aid to Egpyt was the first serious volley in that attempt.
Months after Menendez allegedly began to work for the Egyptians, the amount of money on hold began to be whittled down.
It’s not clear whether his alleged role on behalf of the Egyptians played a role in the case, but in September 2018, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that he would sign national security waivers allowing aid withheld both on the matter in which Okail was involved and Corley to proceed to Egypt. Pompeo did the same in August 2019 after a similar hold was put in place the following year.
“April is an American citizen whose life was practically destroyed, using attack helicopters and missiles manufactured and supplied by the United States,” Rieser, the former Leahy staffer, said. “But our government did not use the leverage Congress provided to obtain fair compensation for April.”