Federal prosecutors say Sen. Bob Menendez sought to install a U.S. attorney who would help one of his supporters beat criminal charges. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Perhaps anticipating all the ways people might ask him to abuse his power, Sen. Bob Menendez posted a warning on his website that he would not “intervene with judicial issues” or “compel an agency to act in your favor or expedite your case.”
Yet federal prosecutors say he did just that when one of his longtime supporters got slapped with federal criminal charges, going so far as to hand-pick a person to head the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey who Menendez thought would be “sympathetic” and dismiss the case.
Damian Williams is U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which led the Menendez investigation.
“Fortunately, the public officials the senator sought to influence did not bend to the pressure,” Williams said during a press conference announcing the charges Friday.
Menendez, a Democrat seeking his fourth term in the U.S. Senate next year, has denied any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors say Menendez tried for over a year to influence the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s prosecution of Fred Daibes, a real estate developer and bank founder who was one of the senator’s longtime fundraisers.
The office under Trump-era U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito charged Daibes in October 2018 with obtaining loans under false pretenses from his bank.
Starting in late 2020 — after President Biden defeated Donald Trump in that year’s presidential race, and it became clear Biden would appoint Carpenito’s replacement — prosecutors say Menendez began attempting to influence the office’s prosecution of Daibes. In exchange, prosecutors said, Daibes gave Menendez cash, gold bars, and furniture.
At the time, Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker were considering at least seven candidates to become the new U.S. attorney for New Jersey, the New Jersey Globe reported.
Menendez met with Philip R. Sellinger, then a potential candidate to become New Jersey’s newest U.S. attorney, and told Sellinger he hoped he could “look into Daibes’ case,” according to the indictment. After Sellinger said he’d have to recuse himself from that case because he handled a case in private practice related to Daibes, Menendez told Sellinger he would not recommend him for the job, the indictment says.
Menendez changed his mind after a Menendez “advisor” told him that Sellinger would not have to recuse himself from the Daibes matter, according to the indictment.
Menendez supported Sellinger for the post, and in October 2021, President Biden nominated him. Sellinger was confirmed that December.
But Sellinger did end up getting recused from the Daibes case, and prosecutors say a frustrated Menendez called him and others in the office to ask why he recused himself, learn who instead would supervise the case, and insist the office give Daibes “all due process.” Menendez later complained to Daibes’ lawyer that Sellinger’s office “had not been aggressive enough in attempting to get Daibes’ case dismissed,” the indictment says.
Office staff who Menendez tried to influence “did not pass on to the prosecution team” Menendez’s comments and “did not treat the case differently as a result” of Menendez’s meddling, the indictment says.
In April 2022, Daibes pled guilty under a plea agreement in exchange for a sentence of probation.
In a search of Menendez’s home, investigators found about 10 envelopes containing tens of thousands of dollars of cash (some of which prosecutors allege bore Daibes’ DNA and return address and his driver’s and Menendez’s fingerprints); a recliner Daibes gifted Menendez after he suffered a shoulder injury; and two one-kilogram and nine one-ounce gold bars with serial numbers showing they previously were owned by Daibes, according to the indictment.
Menendez had Googled “kilo of gold price,” investigators allege.
Friday, a spokesman for Sellinger’s office said he’d been recused from the Daibes case and “all activity by the office related to that matter was handled appropriately according to the principles of federal prosecution.”
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized how the indictment describes Menendez’s conversation with Sellinger.
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