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Democratic New Jersey senator indicted on corruption charges

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We turn now to news out of the Justice Department. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and his wife have been indicted on federal corruption charges. The New Jersey Democrat is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from three businessmen in exchange for using his power as a senator to help them. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is with us now. Hey there.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Tell us more about the charges.

LUCAS: Well, the - Menendez and his wife face three charges - conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit services fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion. Three New Jersey businessmen who were allegedly bribing Menendez in exchange for his help were also charged. One of them is originally from Egypt, and that ties into some of the alleged criminal conduct here. And that's because, according to the indictment, Menendez allegedly gave sensitive U.S. government information and actually took concrete actions to secretly help the Egyptian government. That includes giving them non-public information about U.S. military aid to Egypt and info about U.S. embassy staff in Cairo.

KELLY: Interesting, particularly given Senator Menendez chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, although I gather he is stepping down temporarily until this matter is resolved. Ryan, what else is the government saying he did for these bribes?

LUCAS: Well, prosecutors also say that Menendez pressured a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to try to protect a lucrative business monopoly that one of the businessmen had set up. Menendez also allegedly tried to interfere in a state prosecution in New Jersey related to one co-defendant. And prosecutors say Menendez used his position as senator to try to influence a federal criminal prosecution, also in New Jersey, of yet another one of his co-defendants.

KELLY: OK - so a lot of details. As you have read over this, what stands out to you, Ryan?

LUCAS: Well, there's a lot of detail in this indictment, and that certainly includes the bribes that Menendez and his wife allegedly received. The indictment says that when federal agents searched Menendez's home in June of 2022, they found $480,000 in cash, some of it stuffed into envelopes. Some of those envelopes, prosecutors say, had the fingerprints of one of Menendez's co-defendants on them. Some of the cash was hidden in clothes. There's a photo actually in the indictment of two jackets with Menendez's name monogrammed on them and stacks of $100 bills that were allegedly hidden in those coats. And agents also found bars of gold. There's a picture of them in the indictment, which also says that Menendez's internet search history includes a search for, quote, "how much is one kilo of gold worth?"

KELLY: OK. This is not the first time that Senator Menendez has faced federal corruption charges. He fought earlier charges. He won. What is he saying this time?

LUCAS: Well, you're right. He was indicted in New Jersey back in 2014 on unrelated bribery charges. Menendez took that case to trial, ended up getting a hung jury. And those charges were ultimately dropped. So, yes, he fought those charges at that time. He's doing it again this time. He put out a statement today in which he accuses prosecutors of misrepresenting what Menendez calls the normal work of a congressional office. He accused prosecutors of attacking his wife. He says these are baseless allegations. The facts are not as prosecutors are presenting them. He said that's the same thing that happened the last time he was prosecuted. And he said, look how that ended. He wasn't convicted. And so he told people to remember that.

KELLY: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

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.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.