On Friday, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez and his wife were accused by federal prosecutors of accepting bribes in exchange for using his position to increase U.S. assistance to Egypt and to do favors for three New Jersey businessmen, including Wael Hana, an Egyptian American who ran a lucrative business certifying halal meat exports. “Egypt is a major meat importer,” says Lina Attalah, publisher of the independent Cairo-based news website Mada Masr that investigated the monopolization of halal certification in 2019. “What was straightforward financial corruption had this major political tentacle that affects bilateral relations to a great extent.” Menendez has stepped down as head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, but as he faces growing pressure to resign from his role as senator, New Jersey-based reporter Bob Hennelly says, the state’s political establishment that enabled him for years now appears ready to let him fend for himself. Democrats “really can’t afford to have Bob Menendez hanging around,” says Hennelly, who reports that Menendez has faced serious corruption charges in the past but retained his Senate seat. “This is what he does.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We turn now to the indictment of New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who resigned Friday as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, though continues to be a senator. He and his wife were indicted Friday in a sweeping bribery case. Federal prosecutors accuse Menendez of accepting bribes in exchange for using his position to increase U.S. military aid to Egypt and to do favors for three New Jersey businessmen, including Wael Hana, an Egyptian American who ran a lucrative business certifying halal meat exports. This is Manhattan Federal Prosecutor Damian Williams.
DAMIAN WILLIAMS: First, the indictment alleges that Senator Menendez used his power and influence, including his leadership role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to benefit the government of Egypt in various ways. Among other actions, Senator Menendez allegedly provided sensitive, nonpublic U.S. government information to Egyptian officials and otherwise took steps to secretly aid the government of Egypt. We also allege that Senator Menendez improperly pressured a senior official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect a lucrative monopoly that the government of Egypt had awarded to Hana, a lucrative monopoly that Hana then used to fund certain bribe payments.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.S. Attorney for the Federal District of New York Damian Williams — for the Southern District. He went on to describe what investigators uncovered during their search of Senator Menendez’s home.
DAMIAN WILLIAMS: Now, as part of this investigation, special agents with the FBI executed search warrants on the residence and safe deposit box of Senator Menendez and Nadine Menendez in New Jersey. When they got there, they discovered approximately $500,000 of cash stuffed into envelopes in closets. Some of the cash was stuffed in the senator’s jacket pockets. Some of the cash — some of the envelopes of cash contained Daibes’s fingerprints and Daibes’s DNA. That’s not all. Agents also discovered a lot of gold, gold that was provided by Daibes and Hana. … This is the Mercedes-Benz that we allege that Uribe provided as part of the scheme. What you see here are three kilograms of gold. These three kilograms together are worth approximately $150,000. And, of course, here you can see just a fraction of the cash that was uncovered as part of the scheme.
AMY GOODMAN: And Damian Williams is pointing to cash in the windbreakers and coats and clothes of Senator Menendez at home. According to prosecutors, after a trip to Egypt in 2021, Senator Menendez searched on Google “How much is one kilo of gold worth?” unquote.
This is the not the first time Senator Menendez has faced corruption charges. He was indicted in 2015, but the Justice Department ultimately dropped the charges in 2018 after a jury could not reach a verdict. Menendez is facing growing calls to resign, from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, at least six members of the New Jersey congressional delegation — that’s six congressmembers, not including his own son, who’s a congressmember in New Jersey. Democratic Congressmember Andy Kim has already announced he will run against Menendez. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York has called for him to resign. But George Santos, the other indicted congressman, has said he should stay.
We’re joined now by two guests. Lina Attalah is co-founder of the independent Cairo-based news website Mada Masr, where she is now an editor, and she’s the publisher. In 2019, Mada Masr helped expose a critical part of the story. The exposé was headlined “How the multi-million dollar business of certifying halal meat imports was monopolized.” We’re also joined by Bob Hennelly, an award-winning reporter who’s been covering Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey for decades, an investigative reporter with Insider NJ and Salon.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Bob, we’re going to begin with you in New Jersey. Just lay out these charges.
BOB HENNELLY: Well, so, it’s lifestyles of the rich and elected. What is so jarring is the gold bullion in the pictures. There’s also this new Mercedes-Benz, the C-130, worth $60,000, convertible, that showed up. There was also really sloppy texting back and forth between Ms. Menendez, Nadine Arslanian, who had just, I guess, married Mr. Menendez a few years back — between the senator and all the principals. It’s almost, Amy, like he wanted to be caught, because there was just really no effort to draw — there was a couple of text messages like “Let’s not text and email,” but they have really been able to lay out a roadmap that’s very compelling. And I think that’s part of the reason why, in addition to the fact that the entirety of the New Jersey Legislature is up in 2023. And people may be surprised to know that Donald Trump didn’t win New Jersey, but he got more votes here in the past. And so, Democrats, who are really trying to draw a contrast between the insurrectionists and Donald Trump, really can’t afford to have Bob Menendez hang around.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain further these, for example, gold bars that were found, that had the fingerprints of one of the other men indicted.
BOB HENNELLY: That’s right. There was DNA evidence that linked it to these individuals.
There was also, really, something that’s perhaps even more troubling than the corruption involving the senator, but he attempted to try to get involved with ongoing criminal investigations with the New York state attorney general. And there’s even great bit of detail surrounding the current U.S. attorney, Phil Sellinger, who was with the law firm Greenberg Traurig, very connected politically. And apparently there was a situation where Menendez, before Sellinger was nominated by President Biden, actually wanted to exact from him a guarantee that he would intervene on behalf of one of his friends, who was part of this great lifestyles of the rich and elected. And Sellinger said, “Well, listen,” according to Mr. Williams’ indictment, “you know, I may have to recuse myself, because I have like a professional conflict there.” And then Menendez feigned that he was going to withhold Sellinger’s — support of Sellinger, which makes all the difference, and then switched back to supporting Phil Sellinger. So, this really — this has legs, as they say.
AMY GOODMAN: This is House Representative — this is Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being interviewed Sunday on Face the Nation.
REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: You know, I think it’s — the situation is quite unfortunate, but I do believe that it is in the best interests for Senator Menendez to resign in this moment. As you mentioned, consistency matters. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat. The details in this indictment are extremely serious. They involve the nature of not just his, but all of our seats in Congress. And while — you know, as a Latina, there are absolutely ways in which there is systemic bias, but I think what is here in this indictment is quite clear.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s AOC speaking on Sunday, calling for Bob Menendez to resign. As we are broadcasting right now, it’s right before the news conference he’ll hold from Union City, his hometown in New Jersey, not clear what he’s going to say at that point. Six New Jersey congressmembers of the nine have called for him to resign. He’s already stepped down as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His own son has not called yet for him to resign. Cory Booker has not made a statement yet, the other New Jersey senator. But his position, which he did step down from Friday, Bob, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, extremely significant, given his position on Egypt, one of the leading recipients of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel, he plays such a key role there, also went to Egypt a few years ago. And what that role is and what the connection is, the allegations are, when it comes to lobbying, basically, for Egypt? He contends, in a recent interview he did on CNN, after it was leaked that his home was raided, that he has stood up for human rights in Egypt.
BOB HENNELLY: Well, I guess one of the things here is that he has put his finger on the scale before. What is so troubling about this is that the USDA stepped forward at one point, when it was made aware of his attempt to help his pal, his contributor, get control over the halal export market, which is worth millions of dollars. They were pointing out, “Hey, there’s other American businesses that are going to be hurt by this.” This tracks exactly, Amy, with his pattern and practice with the Federal Drug Administration with Dr. Salomon Melgen. In that case, it was alleged that Melgen was taking a dose of eye medicine and splitting it several ways and then putting people’s health at risk. He was a major donor to Bob Menendez. He was convicted for a $75 million fraud, which, by the way — I hate to always have to mention Trump in a segment — Trump commuted his sentence. Bob Menendez, as you said in the opening, did escape conviction with a hung jury, but the Senate seriously admonished him. So, the fact pattern was established. So this is what he does.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Lina Attalah into this conversation, publisher of the Cairo-based Mada Masr. When we were in Egypt for the U.N. climate summit, Lina, we came to you and did a profile on your organization, your independent news organization, Mada Masr. Now, while you didn’t mention Menendez in your 2019 report, “How the multi-million dollar business of certifying halal meat imports was monopolized,” if you can talk about what your reporter found at that time, to explain to people what exactly happened with the monopolization of the certification of halal meat? All meat coming into Egypt must be halal, right? How does that happen?
LINA ATTALAH: So, thank you, Amy. It’s great to be back on the show.
So, what happened — and I must say that we are very excited to see our story being a small tentacle to something that is much more huge in terms of corruption — but what happened back in 2019 is that our reporter, Nada Arafat, and her editor, Mohamed Hamama, noticed a steep increase in imported meat prices and basically decided to follow the thread of what is causing this increase in prices. And Egypt is a major meat importer. So, by following the thread of how the prices have gone up, were brought up, we found that it is a story of monopolization. How? So, basically, for any company, any supplier of meat, to supply Egypt with meat, they have to get from official certifiers a halal certification. That is, the meat is slaughtered in accordance and in compliance with Sharia laws. But then what happened is that Egypt allows certain certifiers to provide the certification, except that in 2019 Egypt suddenly disqualified all sorts of buyers, with the exception of this one company called IS EG, whose founder is basically none other than Wael Hana, or Walid Hana, who is mentioned as one of the main defendants and one of the main mediators paying off Senator Menendez for services for the Egyptian government.
We followed the thread of the company and how, basically, this one company, after disqualifying other certifiers, the moment it got — it was allowed to provide certification, it raised exponentially the fees of the certificate, so, basically, one container of meat, which used to cost $200, now, under the monopoly, would cost $5,000 to be certified. The banning of certifiers started off in the U.S. and then was extended to Latin America, another major importer — another major supplier of meat to Egypt. So, that caused the prices to surge all the way up. Now, I can tell you more about IS EG, if you’re interested. But the main thing about the —
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, IS EG, with Wael Hana, who has also been indicted, and who exactly he is, in the United States, but also in Egypt, who exactly he’s working for.
LINA ATTALAH: So, we knew nothing about Wael Hana before doing this investigation. He’s an Egyptian immigrant who lives in the U.S. We have not traced, in our 2019 investigation, his direct connections with the authorities here. We now saw this in the indictment document, the 40-pages indictment document, so it’s clear what kind of connections he has. But, basically, Wael is listed as the founder of this company that became the sole certifier of halal certifications, which is something that was granted to him from the Egyptian government. So —
AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, he had never been involved with certification of halal before.
LINA ATTALAH: Not at all. He was never the —
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, he himself is Christian.
LINA ATTALAH: Exactly, exactly, exactly. So, Wael is a Christian, and IS EG was established in New Jersey in 2017 but had nothing to do with meat certification until it received this privilege from the Egyptian government in 2019.
Now, another interesting connection is that Wael’s lawyer, a person whose name we found during our investigation, is a certain Howard Dorian, who’s a lawyer and who has a massive disciplinary history and has been suspended several times. So, Dorian is the person who sets up IS EG, and at the same time Dorian sets up another company, also in the U.S., a company called Medi Trade. And Medi Trade basically became the sole distributor, with IS EG, of the halal certificates to meat suppliers. Now, trying to follow the thread of who owns Medi Trade, we find two things: that Wael Hana is listed as director in Medi Trade, but that also Medi Trade, in the chain of ownership, happens to be associated with what we call in Egypt sovereign bodies. Sovereign bodies in Egypt usually refers to high-level security apparatuses operating in country.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait. You’re talking about Egyptian military intelligence?
LINA ATTALAH: I can’t tell.
AMY GOODMAN: I know it’s difficult to report in Egypt. So, the significance of this in 2023, your report in 2019 linking Menendez to this?
LINA ATTALAH: The significance of it is that, you know, what started off as a small tentacle that is a very straightforward story of financial corruption, where, you know, a single company is making an average of $11 million in profits a year, out of having taken the monopoly over this business, and, of course, causing meat prices to rise, which is a very, like, again, direct financial corruption story that has a direct effect on people’s lives, now also gains this political dimension that now we see from the indictment document what are the profits of this company being used for. And, you know, it circles back to doing services for the Egyptian government, such as negotiating the suspension on certain portions of the annual military aid that receives from the U.S. Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid, $1.3 billion. And, you know, there have been issues with suspending a portion of that in human rights conditionality, and Senator Menendez was cited, according to the indictment report, to have intervened in order to try and influence this decision. So, what was a straightforward financial corruption, you know, had this major political [inaudible] that affects, I would say, bilateral relations to a great extent.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, when we were in Egypt at the U.N. climate summit, a lot — there was a major campaign going on to free Egyptian political prisoners, among them Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who remains in prison, Menendez serving as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time. Do you think this could affect whether or not he would raise these issues, as so many have been, when it comes to giving U.S. military aid to Egypt, one of the largest recipients in the world?
LINA ATTALAH: So, from what I saw in this indictment form, I would never believe that this is a person that was in any form or way working towards supporting the human rights situation in Egypt, that was repeatedly cited by the U.S. also in the context of the annual aid and that was cited also in specific relation to the release of political prisoners, young people who have been lingering in prisons for years and years for a tweet, for expressing themselves, which is basically the case of the prominent Alaa Abd El-Fattah. So, you know, I would wonder what this example tells us about how serious the talk about human rights conditionality, if this is an example of a senator.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. This is very interesting, goes way beyond this particular indictment. Also Hisham Kassem, a well-known journalist, co-founder of the Free Current movement of liberal political parties in Egypt, just arrested, as well, as are so many others imprisoned in Egypt right now. Lina Attalah, publisher and editor of the Cairo, Egypt-based Mada Masr, speaking to us from Cairo, and Bob Hennelly, award-winning reporter who’s been covering Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey for decades. We’ll link to his reports in Insider New Jersey and — Insider NJ and Salon.
That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.
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