Prosecutors in Sen. Menendez’s corruption trial shift focus to Qatar

By: - June 21, 2024 6:45 am

Prosecutors allege real estate developer Fred Daibes, right, schemed to hook Qatari investors by bribing Sen. Bob Menendez to publicly praise the small Arab country on the Persian Gulf. (Aristide Economopoulos for New Jersey Monitor)

Sen. Bob Menendez saw his fortunes climb even before Fred Daibes snagged a $95 million investment from a Qatari royal for a planned development along the Hudson River, according to testimony Thursday in his federal bribery trial in Manhattan.

Over several months in 2021 and early 2022, New Jersey’s senior senator researched the value of gold and luxury watches online while his wife scheduled tours of multimillion-dollar mansions for sale in Alpine and Englewood Cliffs and accepted a gifted lounge chair and Formula 1 race tickets for her son.

At the center of it all was Daibes, acting so much like Santa Claus that Nadine Menendez texted him: “Thank you. Christmas in January.”

On the 21st day of Menendez’s trial Thursday, prosecutors focused on Daibes and their claims that he schemed to hook Qatari investors by bribing Menendez to publicly praise the small Arab country on the Persian Gulf.

Jurors heard from FBI special agent Paul Van Wie, who laid out a timeline of texts, calls, encrypted messages, and other communications that show Menendez connected Daibes with Sheikh Sultan bin Jassim Al Thani, whose brother is Qatar’s emir, and Ali Al Thawadi, the sheikh’s chief of staff. The sheikh heads the largest construction and real estate company in Qatar and advises the emir on investments in the U.S., testimony showed.

When the sheikh’s investment adviser learned Daibes had been federally charged in a 2018 bank fraud case and urged the sheikh to reconsider, Menendez called and met with the sheikh and other Qatari officials in what prosecutors suggested was an attempt to smooth things over.

“I hope that this will result in the favorable and mutually beneficial agreement that you both have been engaged in discussing,” Menendez wrote to bin Jassim in an encrypted WhatsApp message in January 2022.

To sweeten the deal for the Qataris, prosecutors say Menendez shepherded a resolution praising Qatar’s humanitarian work through the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he then chaired, and issued a related press release that he forwarded to Daibes first, texts showed.

“You might want to send it to them. I am just about to release,” the senator told Daibes.

Daibes did just that, assuring the Qatari officials “our mutual friend” would issue it within days.

“At last,” the sheikh responded.

“It’s very good,” his chief of staff agreed.

In May 2022, Daibes and Heritage Advisers, a London-based investment firm the sheikh founded, signed a $190 million deal, with the sheikh footing half of it, according to documents Van Wie presented.

Many of the messages and documents Van Wie presented Thursday, under questioning by prosecutor Paul Monteleoni, seemed intended to prove the quid pro quo part of their argument — revealing the bribes the Menendezes allegedly accepted for the senator’s intervention and influence.

One exchange showed Daibes connected Nadine Menendez with the Tenafly real estate agent who scheduled tours for her of two homes priced at over $4 million.

Another showed that Menendez himself asked Al Thawadi for the Formula 1 tickets, saying Nadine Menendez’s son and his fiancee wanted them.

“Thank you. He is thrilled and so is his mother,” the senator texted Al Thawadi after receiving the tickets.

Defense attorney Avi Weitzman cast doubt on some testimony, like prosecutors’ claim that Daibes gave Menendez a new recliner as a bribe when the senator struggled to heal from a shoulder injury. Van Wie acknowledged under Weitzman’s questioning that prosecutors didn’t show jurors all of the Menendezes’ messages with others involved, including one text suggesting the recliner was a used loaner or hand-me-down.

“That chair has saved so many people in our family!” Daibes’ sister texted Nadine Menendez.

As for the luxury watches, Daibes shared screenshots of Patek Philippe watches ranging in price from about $10,000 to almost $30,000 with Menendez in 2021, asking which he liked, Van Wie testified. But prosecutors offered no receipts or messages proving a purchase occurred, and investigators found no such watches during a June 2022 search of the couple’s Englewood Cliffs home, testimony showed.

Earlier Thursday, prosecutors focused on Menendez’s effort to derail the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s 2018 bank fraud probe of Daibes.

“He is FIXATED on it,” Nadine Menendez assured Daibes by text.

Philip Sellinger, New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, previously told jurors that Menendez asked him to “look at” prosecutors’ handling of Daibes’ case and ended their longtime friendship when Sellinger reported he had a conflict of interest, prompting his Department of Justice bosses to recuse him from the case in December 2021. The recusal left Sellinger’s first assistant, Vikas Khanna, in charge of Daibes’ case.

Thursday, Van Wie presented documents and messages showing that Menendez subsequently researched and communicated with Khanna. The documents also showed that Menendez admonished Daibes’ attorney on a January 2022 phone call for being a “wuss” and not pushing the U.S. Attorney’s Office aggressively enough to dismiss the case, and that Daibes rejected two plea offers before prosecutors agreed in February 2022 to Daibes’ request for probation.

“He is an amazing friend, and as loyal as they come,” Daibes gushed about the senator in an email to Nadine Menendez.

The trial is expected to resume Monday morning, with cross-examination of Van Wie continuing and Khanna and Sarah Arkin, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, taking the stand.

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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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