Egypt interactions were normal work of a U.S. senator, defense argues in Menendez trial

By: - June 25, 2024 8:14 pm

Businessman Wael Hana, pictured at left, poses with Sen. Bob Menendez and his wife, Nadine, during a meeting with several Egyptian officials, including Egyptian Major General Khaled Ahmed Shawky Osman (second from left). (Courtesy U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York)

Richard Gere made an appearance at Sen. Bob Menendez’s federal bribery trial in Manhattan Tuesday.

Not in person. Defense attorney Avi Weitzman invoked the actor’s name as an example of all the “private citizens” who meet with U.S. lawmakers and attend meetings with foreign leaders. Gere has met many foreign and U.S. leaders in his advocacy for the people of Tibet — including New Jersey’s senior senator, whom the actor visited in 2018 at Menendez’s Senate office in Washington, D.C.

“There’s no restriction on private citizens meeting with foreign officials and leaders?” Weitzman asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Sarah Arkin.

Arkin agreed there is not.

Tuesday was Arkin’s second day on the stand, and Weitzman spent the bulk of the day trying to regain ground the defense team lost when Arkin told jurors Monday that Menendez met and communicated multiple times with Egyptian leaders without looping in his staff, as is the committee’s custom.

“They’ve left misimpressions left and right,” Weitzman complained of prosecutors during a court break Tuesday when jurors had left the room.

The Egypt part of prosecutors’ 18-count indictment against Menendez, his wife, Nadine, and their friends Wael Hana, Fred Daibes, and Jose Uribe is arguably the most alarming in the sprawling corruption case that has kept the co-defendants trekking to the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse almost daily since mid-May.

Prosecutors have accused the senator of accepting bribes of gold bars and cash from Hana in exchange for helping Hana hold a monopoly on halal meat exports to the Arab country. They say Menendez curried favor with Egyptian officials through a series of actions, including releasing billions in U.S. military aid and arms to Egypt despite its human rights abuses and otherwise advocating for its economic interests.

Arkin, who was foreign policy adviser for Menendez before joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2018, told jurors Monday that Menendez’s interactions with Egyptian officials turned “weird” that year. In March 2018, Menendez invited Hana and Nadine Menendez to a meeting with Egyptian leaders, he met Egyptian officials without the involvement and briefings he usually got from Senate staff, and he toned down his public criticism of Egypt  in favor of a more “private” approach to diplomacy with Egypt’s leaders, Arkin testified.

But Tuesday, Weitzman challenged each of those points, getting Arkin to concede that Menendez did sometimes meet with private citizens to hear their concerns, occasionally invited constituents from various immigrant groups to meet leaders of their home countries to voice policy and current affairs concerns, and was successful — with his new quiet approach — in persuading Egyptian officials to release at least one young U.S. citizen they’d wrongly detained.

Arkin also agreed Menendez did sometimes attend “professional social events” and other informal gatherings without staff present — and sometimes without giving them a heads-up. And so many spouses of U.S. lawmakers attend “co-dels” — Senate slang for congressional delegations to other countries — that there’s a “spouse program” under which Senate staff arrange travel and sightseeing opportunities for senators’ significant others, Arkin acknowledged.

Arkin also admitted meeting foreign officials was a “normal part” of the job for senators, especially including those who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Menendez helmed until he was indicted last September.

But Arkin also agreed, under re-direct by Richenthal, that most private citizens who sought an audience with the senator didn’t get it. Instead, she said, his staff typically met constituents.

Weitzman’s aggressive cross examination came as prosecutors’ case winds to a close. They told Judge Sidney H. Stein they have about six witnesses left to question — they’ve already questioned about 22 — and expect to rest their case Thursday.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children. You can reach her at [email protected].

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