Federal prosecutors on Friday charged powerful US Senator Robert Menendez with bribery and extortion, saying that gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash had been found at the high-ranking Democrat’s home.
In one of several allegations, the US Department of Justice said that Menendez had provided sensitive information to the Egyptian government to help an Egyptian-American businessman protect his monopoly.
It was the second corruption indictment in eight years against the veteran New Jersey politician, 69, and might place into question his hold on his seat in the US Congress and the Democratic Party’s slim majority in the Senate.
Hours after the indictment Menendez stepped down “temporarily” as chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, a position that had given him significant influence over US foreign relations.
“The senator and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for Senator Menendez using his power and influence to protect and to enrich those businessmen and to benefit the government of Egypt,” US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said.
In a statement, Menendez called the allegations “baseless” and characterized the indictment as a personal attack on him and his wife, Nadine Menendez, who was also indicted.
“They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office,” Menendez said.
Calls for his resignation even came from fellow Democrats, with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy saying the charges were “deeply disturbing.”
“The alleged facts are so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state. Therefore, I am calling for his immediate resignation,” he said in a statement.
Menendez was defiant in a statement issued on Friday evening.
“It is not lost on me how quickly some are rushing to judge a Latino and push him out of his seat. I am not going anywhere,” he said.
Prosecutors said they found more than US$500,000 in cash in Menendez’s New Jersey home and in his wife’s safe deposit box, allegedly received from three New Jersey businessmen seeking his help.
Much of the cash was stuffed in envelopes and boxes and hidden around their home, some tucked into jackets bearing his name.
Gold bars worth about US$150,000 and a luxury Mercedes Benz convertible, gifted by one of the businessmen, were also found.
Prosecutors said they had evidence showing that around the time he and his wife received the gold bars, Menendez searched Google to find out how much they were worth.
Menendez took the money to help protect two of the businessmen from justice department investigations, and to help Egyptian-American Wael Hana with a business monopoly granted to him by the Egyptian government, the indictment said.
“Among other actions, Menendez provided sensitive US Government information and took other steps that secretly aided the Government of Egypt,” it said.
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