Menendez and Wife Face Charges of Plotting to Make Him a Foreign Agent


Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat charged last month with taking bribes in exchange for lucrative political favors, faced a stunning new accusation on Thursday — that he conspired to act as an agent of Egypt even as he served as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Manhattan federal prosecutors filed the latest charge against Mr. Menendez and his wife, Nadine Menendez, as well as a third defendant, Wael Hana, accusing them of conspiring to have the senator work on Egypt’s behalf without registering with the Justice Department.

The prosecutors have asked a judge to seize the Menendezes’ residence in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., as well as a Mercedes-Benz convertible that the government says was given to them as a bribe.

The alleged actions underlying the latest charge cut to the heart of Mr. Menendez’s Senate oath to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the U.S. Constitution and are certain to intensify pressure for him to resign from office. The charge accuses him of conspiring to violate an explicit prohibition on public officials serving as agents of foreign powers, and it appears to be the first time a sitting senator has been charged with conduct covered by the World War II-era Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Mr. Menendez, 69, Nadine Menendez, 56, Mr. Hana and two other businessmen were accused last month in what prosecutors and F.B.I. officials described as a scheme to use the senator’s influence to increase U.S. aid and military sales to Egypt in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars, bars of gold bullion and the Mercedes-Benz.

The new indictment charges that from 2018 through 2022, Mr. Menendez, his wife and Mr. Hana conspired to have the senator act as an agent of Egypt in a bribery plot furthered during meetings and dinners attended by the Menendezes, Mr. Hana and Egyptian officials in various combinations.

In a Washington steakhouse in May 2019, prosecutors said, Ms. Menendez asked, “What else can the love of my life do for you?”

In court hearings last month, all five defendants pleaded not guilty.

“I have been, throughout my life, loyal to only one country — the United States of America, the land my family chose to live in democracy and freedom,” Mr. Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, said in a statement released by his office on Thursday.

“Piling new charge upon new charge does not make the allegations true,” Mr. Menendez said. “The facts haven’t changed, only a new charge. It is an attempt to wear someone down, and I will not succumb to this tactic. I again ask people who know me and my record to give me the chance to present my defense and show my innocence.”

Nadine Menendez’s lawyer, David Schertler, said in a statement that she denied all the allegations, and that “we will fight all these charges, as appropriate, in court.”

Mr. Hana’s lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, scoffed at the new conspiracy charge.

“The new allegation that Wael Hana was part of a plot concocted over dinner to enlist Senator Menendez as an agent of the Egyptian government is as absurd as it is false,” Mr. Lustberg said in a statement, adding that Mr. Hana would “vigorously defend” himself.

After the initial indictment was made public last month, Mr. Menendez stepped down from his position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. But he has rejected calls from fellow Democrats to resign from the Senate.

Several Democrats in New Jersey and Washington went further on Thursday, calling for the Senate to vote to expel him. They included Representative Andy Kim, a congressman seeking to defeat Mr. Menendez in a primary next year, and Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

“It is time for every one of my colleagues in the Senate to join me in expelling Senator Menendez,” Mr. Fetterman said. “We cannot have an alleged foreign agent in the United States Senate. This is not a close call.”

In a sign of his defiant stance, Mr. Menendez was scheduled to host a major fund-raising retreat for donors of his political action committee starting Friday at a luxury resort in Puerto Rico. Officials in New Jersey who had contributed to the senator’s leadership PAC or past campaigns said as recently as Wednesday that they were also getting calls from people close to Mr. Menendez asking them to contribute to the senator’s defense fund.

The indictment last month accused Mr. Menendez of secretly editing and ghost writing a letter in May 2018 on behalf of an Egyptian government official meant to persuade other senators to release a hold on $300 million in U.S. military aid.

He wrote the letter at the urging of Ms. Menendez, the indictment said, and then sent it to her via his private email account. She then sent it on to Mr. Hana, who passed it to Egyptian officials, the indictment suggests.

The new indictment suggests that Mr. Menendez was fully aware of the requirements of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In fact, the indictment says, Mr. Menendez during that period asked the Justice Department to open an investigation into a former member of Congress for failing to register under the law known as FARA.

In a May 2020 letter to the head of the department’s national security division, Mr. Menendez wrote, “The Act is clear that acting directly or indirectly in any capacity on behalf of a foreign principal triggers the requirement to register under FARA.”

Mr. Menendez posted that communication on his Senate office website, the indictment says. The May 2020 letter from Mr. Menendez to a Justice Department official asks for a review of whether David M. Rivera, a former Republican congressman from Florida, should have registered as a foreign agent for work he had done for the government of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.

“The last thing we should tolerate is a former member of Congress potentially violating U.S. laws as he does the regime’s dirty work in the United States,” Mr. Menendez wrote.

Mr. Rivera was charged in December in the Southern District of Florida with conspiracy, failure to register as a foreign agent and other crimes, according to an indictment.

This is not the first time that Mr. Menendez has faced federal corruption charges. He was indicted in New Jersey in 2015 in what prosecutors described as a bribery scheme to trade political favors for a wealthy eye doctor for gifts worth close to $1 million, including high-end travel and campaign contributions.

The case went to trial in 2017 but ended in a hung jury.

The new charge left historians grasping for precedents. An Ohio senator was accused of conspiring to commit treason in the early 19th century. But Mr. Menendez is the first senator charged with conduct covered under the foreign agents law since Congress passed it in the 1930s to target Nazi propagandists. According to records from the Senate historian’s office, he also appears to be the first sitting senator ever charged in two separate bribery schemes.

Ross K. Baker, a politics professor who studies Congress at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the accusations are as grave as any brought against a senator over the past century.

“This rises well above things like trade secrets or corporate information,” he said. “The oath is unequivocal in terms of loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.”

Tracey Tully contributed reporting.

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