US prosecutors on Friday charged the chairman of the influential Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Menendez, with corruption-related offences, claiming that he “provided sensitive US government information … that secretly aided the government of Egypt”.
The indictment states that Mr Menendez, a Democrat, and his wife Nadine Arslanian-Menendez “engaged in a corrupt relationship” with three New Jersey associates and businessmen, including with Egyptian-American businessman Wael Hana.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said Mr Menedez had "rightly decided to step down temporarily" from his role as foreign relations committee chairman.
Federal agents searched the couple's home and safe deposit box in June 2022 and found some of “the fruits” of their “corrupt bribery agreement”, including more than $550,000 in cash and several gold bars worth more than $100,000, according to the indictment.
The couple accepted “hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes in exchange for using Menendez's power and influence”, including to “benefit the Arab Republic of Egypt”, federal prosecutors say.
Those bribes also allegedly included payments towards a home mortgage and a luxury vehicle.
The indictment claims that Ms Arslanian-Menendez worked with Mr Hana to “introduce Egyptian intelligence and military officials” to the powerful senator.
Mr Hana and his associates bribed the couple “in exchange for Menendez’s acts and breaches of duty to benefit the Government of Egypt, Hana, and others, including with respect to foreign military sales and foreign military financing”, the indictment states.
Mr Menendez strongly denied the indictment's allegations on Friday, accusing the prosecutors of “excess” and saying they “have misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office".
"On top of that, not content with making false claims against me, they have attacked my wife for the long-standing friendships she had before she and I even met," he said.
“Those behind this campaign simply cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a US senator and serve with honour and distinction.”
Prosecutors allege that Mr Menendez sought to install a US attorney “who he thought could be influenced”.
“Fortunately, the public officials the senator sought to influence did not bend to the pressure. That's a good thing,” said US Attorney Damian Williams at a Friday press conference.
He added that “this investigation is very much continuing. We are not done. And I want to encourage anyone with information to come forward and to come forward quickly".
Friday's indictment marks the second set of corruption charges he has faced from the Justice Department in the past decade, with the previous allegations also focused on bribery-related issues.
Prosecutors dropped that case after a jury deadlocked in November 2017 on charges including bribery, fraud and conspiracy, and a judge dismissed some counts.
The New Jersey senator is known as a foreign policy hawk in Washington, and has at times been a vocal critic of presidents from his own party.
Most notably, he came down on the opposite side of former president Barack Obama's administration on the Iran nuclear deal and Mr Obama’s bid to reset relations with Cuba.
He was vocally supportive of a “transition in the Egyptian government” during the Arab uprisings, saying in several statements throughout 2011 that Egyptians had “for generations … lived under [Hosni] Mubarak's autocratic rule”.
The Senate committee that he leads has recently expressed bipartisan concern over US-Egypt funding, including during a budget hearing with Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Mr Menendez's Democratic colleague Senator Chris Murphy told Ms Leaf that he worries the Biden administration's Middle East budget for fiscal year 2024 “doesn't communicate US values” on human rights records in Tunisia and Egypt.