NJ’s Menendez Rejects Calls to Quit Senate Amid Corruption Indictment

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

NJ’s Menendez Rejects Calls to Quit Senate Amid Corruption Indictment

Oct 2, 2023 5 min read

Commentary By

Zack Smith @tzsmith

Senior Legal Fellow, Meese Center for Legal Studies

Charles “Cully” Stimson @cullystimson

Senior Legal Fellow and Deputy Director, Meese Center

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) waves away journalists after addressing a closed Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on September 28, 2023 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Menendez—who has held his seat since 2006—rejected calls for him to resign and offered his first tepid defense and explanation for his conduct.

Menendez was well-positioned to influence foreign-policy matters related to Egypt—and other countries, too.

Time will tell whether Menendez’s explanations stand up to scrutiny.

The U.S. Justice Department on Friday released an indictment, which accuses New Jersey’s senior Democratic U.S. senator, Bob Menendez—along with his wife and several others—of engaging in a corrupt scheme to benefit himself, potentially at the expense of U.S. national security interests.

Based on the serious allegations in the indictment, many in Menendez’s own party have called for his resignation. Unless Menendez can show that the factual allegations in the indictment did not happen (which, given all the details set forth in the indictment, seems like a tall order), he is likely to continue facing these calls to resign, regardless of whether he is criminally convicted.

On Monday, however, Menendez—who has held his seat since 2006—rejected calls for him to resign and offered his first tepid defense and explanation for his conduct.

The 2015 Case

Of course, this isn’t Menendez’s first time facing federal corruption charges. In 2015, the Justice Department brought a sprawling corruption case against him. But after a trial in which the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on many of the charges and in which a federal judge dismissed others, the Justice Department dropped the case in January 2018.

The 2023 Indictment

That’s where the current story picks up. It begins the following month, when Menendez began dating his now-wife, Nadine. According to the indictment, she worked with other co-defendants “to introduce Egyptian intelligence and military officials to [Menendez] for the purpose of establishing and solidifying a corrupt agreement.”

The gist of the plot is that several of her now co-defendants would provide bribes to Menendez in exchange for his “acts and breaches of duty to benefit the Government of Egypt [and others] … including with respect to foreign military sales and foreign military financing.”

This is a national security nightmare.

And ironically, while Menendez was denouncing then-President Donald Trump and others for supposedly being assets of foreign powers, he stands accused of being exactly that and of taking actions for the benefit of a foreign government.

Some of the actions he allegedly took included indirectly providing non-public information about U.S. Embassy personnel to Egyptian authorities, helping to make sure ammunition sales bound for Egypt received approval, and providing advance notice to an Egyptian official about what questions he would likely face when testifying before a Senate committee.

The New Jersey lawmaker is alleged to have taken other actions, too. He allegedly put pressure on state and federal authorities investigating or prosecuting others involved in the scheme to drop the matter or offer them a favorable deal. And he is said to have taken steps to make sure that a lucrative monopoly, which allegedly helped to facilitate the bribe payments to him, remained in place.

Some have described the allegations in the indictment as almost cartoonish levels of corruption.

According to the Justice Department, Menendez took action to benefit the “Arab Republic of Egypt,” and in exchange, he or his wife received “bribes [that] included cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, compensation for a low-or-no-show job, a luxury vehicle, and other things of value.”

When the FBI raided Menendez’s home 15 months ago in June 2022, it found more than $480,000 in cash stuffed in envelopes and more than $100,000 worth of gold bars stashed in the home.

Menendez hasn’t offered an explanation for the gold bars found in his home, but he said that he kept the cash on hand for emergencies. (Talk about a rainy-day fund.)

Can’t Be Trusted

As chairman of the Senate’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez was well-positioned to influence foreign-policy matters related to Egypt—and other countries, too.

Menendez, like all criminal defendants, is entitled to a presumption of innocence. And he has gone on the offensive by saying he won’t resign and by implying the charges against him are somehow based on his race or ethnicity. 

He has stepped down, at least temporarily, from his role as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.  Whether that was on his own accord or at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., we will never know. But he’s still a senator, still has a security clearance, and still has access to classified and sensitive government information. 

But why was he allowed to remain in the role as chairman of that committee for more than a year after the FBI raided his home and found the cash, gold, and other incriminating evidence in June 2022? 

And regardless of the outcome of the criminal case against him, is this really the conduct we want, or should expect, from our elected officials?

Certainly not. 

Any actions he takes going forward will have a pall cast over them.

Senate Could Expel Menendez

If Menendez won’t resign, the Senate could consider expelling him. Article I, Sec. 5 of the U.S. Constitution provides: “Each House [of Congress] may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” In our nation’s history, the U.S. Senate has expelled just 15 members, the last one being then-Sen. Robert Packwood, R-Ore., in 1995 for sexual misconduct. 

Menendez’s conduct, unlike Packwood’s, directly implicates national security interests. How can he continue to hold a security clearance or have access to any national security information whatsoever with these charges hanging over his head? 

These are weighty questions that Menendez’s fellow senators must confront.

Regrettably, Menendez’s integrity is once again in question because he apparently engaged in egregious conduct unbecoming of a sitting U.S. senator—especially since he placed his own interests ahead of the national security interests of the United States.

Time will tell whether Menendez’s explanations stand up to scrutiny. But after escaping relatively unscathed from his prior federal corruption case, Menendez may be feeling emboldened, even though he is currently embattled for his apparently unsavory conduct.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal on September 25, 2023

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