Bob Menendez and the gold bars: A short history of New Jersey corruption

My state's remarkable history of political corruption continues, with the first U.S. senator to be indicted twice

Published September 28, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Senator Bob Menendez and his wife Nadine Menendez depart a Manhattan court after they were arraigned on federal bribery charges in New York, United States on September 27, 2023. (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Senator Bob Menendez and his wife Nadine Menendez depart a Manhattan court after they were arraigned on federal bribery charges in New York, United States on September 27, 2023. (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Hard-wired into our national self-image is the concept of American exceptionalism, the notion that our country stands out for all the ages as the best hope for humanity, despite its original sin of slavery.

Yet as a lifelong resident of New Jersey, the crossroads of the American Revolution, I have had to reconcile this idealized view with my decades of first-hand reporting on the systemic and endemic political corruption in my state, one of the original 13 colonies.

New Jersey is truly exceptional, in a dystopian sense — and no one personifies that better than Sen. Bob Menendez, who was indicted this week on federal charges of bribery and corruption. 

According to the U.S. Senate historian, only 13 sitting senators have ever been criminally indicted, out of more than 2,000 Americans who have served in what is sometimes called the "club of 100." Menendez now has a unique distinction: He's the only senator to be indicted twice.

People in my state certainly remember the case of Sen. Harrison Williams, a four-term New Jersey Democrat convicted in 1981 on nine counts of bribery for his role in the Abscam scandal. The FBI snared Williams along with a half-dozen sitting members of the House of Representatives, one of them from New Jersey, and Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, an infamous South Jersey power broker. (That scandal was the basis for the 2013 film "American Hustle.")

In 2009, federal prosecutors had to use school buses to round up the dozens of defendants in a "corruption and international money-laundering investigation stretching from the Jersey Shore to Brooklyn to Israel and Switzerland" that "culminated in charges against 44 people, including three New Jersey mayors, two state assemblymen and five rabbis," as the New York Times reported at the time.

Perhaps an anthropologist would attribute this to the state's demographic status as the nation's most densely populated state, with 9.3 million people packed into a land area about one-fifth the size of Virginia and one-tenth the size of Minnesota, both of which have smaller total populations. A political scientist might blame it on New Jersey's bewildering welter of overlapping jurisdictions: We have 564 municipalities and close to 600 local school districts spread across 21 counties, along with thousands of independent government authorities and publicly owned utilities. 

Menendez continues to resist calls to resign, despite dozens of his Senate Democratic colleagues and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, asking him to do so. Menendez insists he will not surrender his seat until his case is resolved in court — or until New Jersey voters reject him in next year's election — as if holding high public office were a constitutional right or a question of personal liberty.

Menendez attempted to explain the vast quantities of cash discovered by FBI agents in his home as evidence of his eccentric but entirely legal habit of withdrawing money from the bank and stashing it around the house. "This may seem old-fashioned," he said.

"I firmly believe when all the facts are presented not only will I be exonerated but I will still be New Jersey's senior senator," Menendez told reporters at a Sept. 25 press gathering. "A cornerstone of the foundation of America's democracy and our justice system is the principle that all people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, all people. I ask for nothing more and expect nothing less." He formally pleaded not guilty in federal court on Wednesday

At his press event, Menendez attempted to explain photographs presented by federal prosecutors showing vast quantities of cash discovered by FBI agents in his home as evidence of his eccentric but entirely legal habit of withdrawing money from the bank and stashing it around the house. "This may seem old-fashioned," he said, "but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years," he said.

During his Sept. 22 press conference, Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said prosecutors had DNA and fingerprint evidence linking the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash found in Menendez's home to indicted co-conspirators.

Menendez didn't offer any explanation for the bars of gold bullion also found in his home.

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An outside observer might conclude that, in the face of this overwhelming evidence, Menendez seems disconnected from reality. It's not that simple. His alleged misdeeds can be seen as an inevitable product of my state's political culture, which nurtured and reinforced the senator's worldview regarding power — what it is, how to preserve it and what it's for. When we talk about the obscene concentration of wealth in the U.S., we can't lay all the blame on Wall Street: American politics are marinated and pickled in money.   

Menendez's previous indictment came in 2015, on federal charges stemming from his unsavory relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida doctor. The Justice Department alleged that between 2006 and 2013, Menendez had taken close to $1 million worth of "lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to influence the outcome of ongoing contractual and Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to Melgen and to support the visa applications of several of Melgen's girlfriends."

During that trial, Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey's other Democrat in the upper chamber of Congress, testified as a character witness for Menendez, as did Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican. This time around, Booker has called for Menendez to resign, while Republicans have largely stayed quiet. 

After the jury deadlocked and was unable to reach a verdict, federal prosecutors opted not to retry Menendez. Melgen, his friend, campaign donor and co-defendant, was convicted on charges of massive Medicare fraud. On the last day of Donald Trump's presidency, Melgen's sentence was commuted to time served and he was released from prison.

Throughout Menendez's first indictment and prosecution, he had the kind of near-unanimous support from his fellow Democrats that Trump enjoys today from almost all Republicans. From 2008 to 2011, Menendez had served as chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which is responsible for raising tens of millions of dollars from every commercial interest under the sun.

Historically, senators from New Jersey have gravitated to that fundraising hot seat: Former Sens. Jon Corzine and Bob Torricelli both put in their time soliciting donations to help elect more Democrats. Perhaps the Soprano State's pay-to-play transactional ethos has a national or even global application.

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In April 2018, Menendez was "severely admonished" by the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Ethics for taking and not disclosing "gifts of significant value from Dr. Melgen" while using his position "as a member of the Senate to advance Dr. Melgen's personal and business interests." Yet after Democrats regained the Senate majority in 2021, Menendez became chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, a post of enormous prestige and influence that — according to the narrative put forward by federal prosecutors — he wielded to maximum advantage. (Under Senate rules, he resigned that post this week.)

Back in the parallel universe of New Jerseystan, Menendez's consolidation of political power continued, aided and abetted at the highest level of state government. In 2021, Gov. Murphy nominated Rob Menendez, the senator's son, as a commissioner of the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The younger Menendez was also an attorney at Lowenstein Sandler, a top donor to his father's political action committee, according to OpenSecrets.

Last year, Rob Menendez got the nod from New Jersey's political machine to run for the U.S. House seat that his father formerly held, before he was picked by newly-elected Gov. Jon Corzine in 2006 to fill Corzine's Senate seat. 

Does Menendez seems disconnected from reality? It's not that simple. His alleged misdeeds can be seen as an inevitable product of my state's political culture, which nurtured and reinforced his worldview regarding power — what it is, how to preserve it and what it's for.

To be clear, both political parties in New Jersey and New York have historically used the Port Authority as a conveyor belt for spoils for deep-pockets donors. Almost 20 years ago, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey installed real estate developer Charles Kushner — yes, the father of Jared Kushner, as well as McGreevey's single biggest campaign donor — onto the board of the bi-state agency that oversees the region's vast transportation infrastructure.

Charles Kushner pled guilty in 2004 to 16 federal counts, including tax fraud, witness retaliation and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. Trump later pardoned him.

In the latest Menendez indictment, U.S. Attorney Williams alleges that between 2018 and 2022, Menendez and his wife, Nadine, "engaged in a corrupt relationship with ... three New Jersey businessmen who collectively paid hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes, including cash, gold, a Mercedes Benz, and other things of value" in exchange for Menendez agreeing to "use his power and influence to protect and enrich those businessmen and to benefit the Government of Egypt." 

Specifically, Menendez is accused of providing Egyptian officials with non-public information about staff at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, as well as ghost-writing a letter on behalf of the Egyptian government aimed at persuading his Senate colleagues to release aid to that country. He also allegedly provided information about when, as Senate Foreign Relations chair, he would sign off on the release of $99 million in U.S. munitions to Egypt.

Prosecutors also charge that Menendez illegally inserted himself into ongoing state and federal criminal investigations that had targeted his co-defendants and their associates. None of the names of law enforcement officials he allegedly tried to pressure are mentioned, although the filings claim those individuals "did not treat the case any differently as a result of Menendez's actions."

According to the 39-page indictment, Menendez met with an unnamed "Candidate" under consideration as a potential U.S. attorney for New Jersey. He has been identified by reporters as attorney Philip Sellinger, a longtime partner at Greenberg Traurig.

The purpose of that meeting, prosecutors allege, was to link Menendez's support for Sellinger's candidacy to the question of how Sellinger would handle a bank fraud case involving one of Menendez's co-defendants. Sellinger apparently told Menendez that due to previous work he had performed in private practice he would likely have to recuse himself from the bank fraud case.

"Menendez subsequently informed [Sellinger] that he would not put forward [Sellinger's] name to the White House" as U.S. attorney, prosecutors claim, saying that he would recommend "a different individual for the position." 

The indictment further alleges that Menendez's next pick for the job became the subject of "critical" news reports, and that an unidentified intermediary then told Menendez that Sellinger would not have to recuse himself. Menendez advanced Sellinger's nomination, and he was confirmed by the Senate in December 2021. After Sellinger disclosed his previous link to the bank fraud case to his bosses at the DOJ, however, they determined that a recusal was in fact warranted.

That didn't deter Menendez, prosecutors say, from persisting in trying to reach inside the U.S. attorney's office in Newark to make his influence felt. Williams' indictment maintains that federal prosecutors were insulated by their superiors from Menendez's efforts and "did not treat the case differently as a result of the above-described contacts."

What could account for the immense hubris and entitlement of Menendez's alleged behavior? Perhaps answers can be discerned in what was left out of the indictment, namely Menendez's longtime relationship with Sellinger and his international law firm, Greenberg Traurig.

In 2012, Sellinger persuaded then-Vice President Joe Biden to attend a fundraiser for Menendez at Sellinger's home that created so much disruption that local schools were forced to close early. In 2018, Herb Jackson of reported that Greenberg Traurig had donated $62,500 of the $5.1 million defense fund Menendez amassed for his legal defense in the Melgen case.

Is that evidence of corruption? Not in the legal sense of that word. It is evidence of how America's political economy works, and how closely members of the wealthiest classes in our nation are tied to each other. It's the invisible hand that wants to tip the scales of justice — which sometimes becomes all too visible in New Jersey.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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Analysis Bob Menendez Corruption Democrats New Jersey