Menendez pleads not guilty to foreign agent charge

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Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) pleaded not guilty Monday to an unprecedented charge alleging he conspired with his wife and a New Jersey businessman to act as an unregistered foreign agent of the Egyptian government, according to The Associated Press (AP).

Menendez made the plea in federal court in Manhattan. A trial in the matter is tentatively scheduled to start in May, according to the AP.

Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York allege Menendez “secretly aided” and provided sensitive U.S. government information to Egypt, marking the first time a sitting U.S. senator has been accused of working on behalf of another country. As a member of Congress, Menendez is prohibited by law from agreeing to be or acting as a foreign agent.

The senior senator called the new charge “an attempt to wear someone down” in a statement to The Hill earlier this month that maintained his innocence.

Menendez’s wife, Nadine Arslanian, and businessman Wael “Will” Hana are accused of plotting with the New Jersey Democrat between January 2018 and June 2022 to aid the Egyptian government. In one such example detailed in the indictment, Menendez passed nonpublic, “highly sensitive” State Department information about people serving at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to an Egyptian government official via the pair. They both pleaded not guilty to the new charge last week.

The new count follows previous charges Menendez wielded his “power and influence” as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to reap benefits for Hana and two other New Jersey businessmen and to aid Egypt’s government. In return, Menendez and his wife accepted opulent bribes including gold bars, “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and a luxury vehicle, prosecutors claim.

The senator also sought to disrupt a criminal investigation by the state’s attorney general’s office into Jose Uribe, the second businessman, and to influence the prosecution of Fred Daibes, the third businessman, according to the indictment.

Menendez pleaded not guilty to those charges last month and has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, calling the allegations against him “baseless” and refusing to resign from the upper chamber despite dozens of calls from his Democratic colleagues to do so. He did step down as chairman from the Foreign Relations Committee, per Senate Democrats’ caucus rules.

Menendez’s wife and the three businessmen also pleaded not guilty to the federal bribery charges.

The new conspiracy charge purports Menendez acted as a foreign agent of Egypt without registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law requiring any person acting in the U.S. as an “agent of a foreign principal” to register with the U.S. attorney general. The law is meant to prevent covert influence by other countries.

As a senator, Menendez is prohibited from acting as a foreign agent even as registered under FARA. The new charge cites a statute related to FARA that explicitly bars public officials from actions that would trigger registration. Several FARA experts previously told The Hill that the statute has never been charged, underlying the extraordinary nature of the accusation.

Neither Menendez’s wife nor Hana were registered under the act as well, the indictment says.

Menendez faced federal corruption charges in 2015 for accepting gifts and trips from a donor, but those charges were dropped three years later after a jury failed to reach a verdict.

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