Bob Menendez’s indictment is colourful even by Jersey standards

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CORRUPTION IS “not unique to New Jersey”, says Elizabeth Matto of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “But the state does seem to have a knack for it.”  Even so, the 39-page indictment charging Bob Menendez, the state’s Democratic senior senator, with three counts of corruption is impressive. Mr Menendez has pleaded not guilty and was released on a $100,000 bond and told to surrender his passport. He asserts that the federal prosecutors have “misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office”.

The indictment, unsealed on September 22nd, accuses Mr Menendez of using his position to provide help for three associates. This alleged assistance included attempting to interfere in a criminal prosecution against one of them and protecting a business monopoly owned by another. Prosecutors allege he used his position as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to share sensitive and non-public information with Egyptian government officials through one of his associates. This information included that an American ban on sales of arms and ammunition to Egypt had been lifted. He is also accused of ghostwriting a letter lobbying other senators to support lifting a hold on $300m in aid to Egypt.

Prosecutors accused Mr Menendez and his wife Nadine of accepting bribes in the form of cash, gold, a Mercedes-Benz and mortgage payments. When searching the senator’s home, FBI agents found $100,000 in gold bars and $480,000 in cash. Some of the money was hidden in clothes, including jackets with Mr Menendez’s name stitched on the front. His wife and his three friends have also been charged. A defiant Mr Menendez again denied any wrongdoing during a press conference in Union City, where he once served as mayor. He explained he had earned the money lawfully and that he had withdrawn the cash from his savings accounts “for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba”. He did not explain the gold bars.

More than two dozen Democratic senators, including his friend Cory Booker, his fellow New Jersey senator, have called on Mr Menendez to resign, as has Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s governor. There are state elections in November and “nobody was willing to bleed for him”, says Micah Rasmussen of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics. Much of south New Jersey is part of the Philadelphia media market, so Pennsylvania swing voters could see ads about Mr Menendez. “Democrats are trying to make the argument that it’s Donald Trump who is corrupt,” says Jessica Taylor of the Cook Political Report, a newsletter. “Republicans can point to [Mr Menendez] and say, ‘You have your guy here’.”

This is not Mr Menendez’s first indictment. In 2006 Chris Christie, then the state federal attorney and later New Jersey’s Republican governor, investigated him, but those inquiries went nowhere. Mr Menendez was also indicted in 2015 on corruption charges; the trial ended with a hung jury in 2017. Yet he was re-elected in 2018, perhaps because New Jersey’s voters are so used to allegations against their politicians.

In 2017 Atlantic City’s mayor resigned in disgrace, the sixth mayor since the 1970s to do so. In 2014 Trenton’s mayor was convicted for extortion and bribery. In 2010 two Democratic mayors were convicted of bribery. Mr Christie convicted more than 130 corrupt officials between 2002 and 2009, including the mayor of Newark. Bob Torricelli resigned as senator amid ethics violations in 2002.

Going further back, another federal attorney prosecuted two secretaries of state, two state legislators, a congressman and 64 other public officials in the 1970s. A separate FBI sting operation in the 1970s, known as ABSCAM, led to the convictions of a New Jersey senator and the mayor of Camden, among others. And plenty have, presumably, got away with it. Harold Hoffman, governor in the 1930s, confessed in a letter opened upon his death that he had plundered $300,000 from the state treasury. Still, as Mr Rasmussen says of Mr Menendez: “Even by New Jersey standards, this feels different.”

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