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Democratic Sen. Menendez indicted on federal corruption charges

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Federal prosecutors in New York have indicted Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey on corruption charges. Menendez's wife and three others were also charged in the case unsealed this morning in federal court in Manhattan. Joining us now to discuss this is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what are Menendez, his wife and these three others charged with?

LUCAS: Well, Menendez and his wife, Nadine, have been indicted on three charges here. It's conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion. There are three co-defendants, all of them New Jersey businessmen of one stripe or another, face two of those charges as well. But the indictment really does provide a lot of details on what prosecutors say was the alleged scheme here.

FADEL: OK. So what are prosecutors saying they did?

LUCAS: Well, according to the indictment, Menendez and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the three businessmen. And in return, Menendez allegedly used his position as a U.S. senator to try to help those businessmen out. Prosecutors say Menendez provided sensitive U.S. government information and took actions that secretly aided the Egyptian government. He allegedly pressured a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to try to protect one of his co-defendant's businesses. He allegedly tried to disrupt a criminal investigation by the New Jersey attorney general related to yet another co-defendant. And prosecutors also say that Menendez allegedly used his position as senator to recommend to the president a particular person to be the U.S. attorney for New Jersey because, prosecutors say, Menendez thought that individual could be influenced regarding the prosecution of yet another co-defendant.

FADEL: Wow. These are pretty explosive allegations. So how much money are we talking about here that they supposedly got to do these things?

LUCAS: Well, this is where the indictment gets into a lot of detail, because prosecutors say in this court document that during a court authorized search of Menendez's home in the summer of 2022, agents found more than $480,000 in cash. A lot of it, prosecutors say, was stuffed into envelopes. Some of it was allegedly hidden in closets in clothing.

FADEL: Wow.

LUCAS: There's actually a photograph in the indictment of two jackets with Menendez's name stitched on them in which there are stacks of hundred-dollar bills that were allegedly hidden in those coats. Another $70,000 in cash was found in a safe deposit box. Prosecutors say an agent also found gold bars. There's a photo, actually, of two of those gold bars in this indictment.

FADEL: Wow. Has Menendez said anything about these indictments and these accusations?

LUCAS: There hasn't been any word from him. We've reached out to his office but haven't heard anything back.

FADEL: And we should mention at this point, this isn't the first time the senator faces allegations like these, right, Ryan? Remind us what happened the last time.

LUCAS: Well, that's right. He faced federal charges in 2015 on unrelated corruption and bribery charges. Menendez fought those charges, case went to trial, and ultimately, a federal judge declared a mistrial after the jury in that case was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

FADEL: Now, this latest indictment comes just two days after Attorney General Merrick Garland testified on Capitol Hill and Republicans accused the department of political bias. One set of laws for Republicans, another for Democrats. Is the timing of the indictment linked to that?

LUCAS: It's not. No. This investigation has been going on for a long time. These things come to an indictment on their own schedule. It is notable, though, that Menendez is a senior Democratic U.S. senator. He's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a very powerful and important position. And yet, this is the second time in the past several years that the Justice Department has brought charges against him.

FADEL: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.