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Former U.S. official offers lesson in military aid — and political power — at Menendez trial


Former U.S. official offers lesson in military aid — and political power — at Menendez trial

May 22, 2024 | 7:04 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
Former U.S. official offers lesson in military aid — and political power — at Menendez trial
Sen. Bob Menendez leaves the Daniel Patrick Moynihan federal courthouse in Manhattan on Monday, May 20, 2024, where his corruption trial entered its second week. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Sen. Bob Menendez had a reputation as someone “very strong in his concern” about human rights abuses in Egypt, where a repressive military government jailed tens of thousands of dissenters over the past decade, a former top U.S. security official testified at his trial Tuesday.

Yet federal prosecutors said New Jersey’s senior senator, as ranking member and then chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, signed off on billions in military aid and arms between 2018 and 2023 — sometimes over the objections of his Congressional colleagues.

Tuesday, prosecutors set out to educate jurors about Menendez’s role in how the United States distributes $180 billion a year to its “defense partners,” including $1.3 billion to Egypt, which pockets the most behind Israel.

One of their witnesses was Joshua Paul, who headed congressional and public affairs at the State Department’s political-military affairs bureau until last fall, and for several hours, it felt like an honors-level civics class in U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein’s Manhattan courtroom.

About $300 million of Egypt’s annual aid is conditional on its human rights record, with Congress able to withhold some or all of that if the country doesn’t improve on issues like freeing political prisoners, Paul testified. U.S. lawmakers unhappy with their progress have held back money or threatened to in recent years, he added.

“Egypt did not like the idea that there were conditions in the first place and certainly did not like when funding was withheld,” Paul said.

Prosecutors then asked how much influence Menendez had over foreign military sales, given his committee role.

“More than any other member of Congress,” Paul responded. Menendez surrendered his leadership role on the committee after his September indictment, although he remains a member.

Paul’s tutorial touched on everything from the Camp David Accords to the map of the Middle East, but he didn’t talk too much about Menendez. That was intentional: Lawmakers get constitutionally granted immunity that protects them from being prosecuted for official legislative acts, under what’s known as the speech and debate clause.

That protection has prompted Stein a few times to scold prosecutors pushing to introduce evidence of legislative acts — such as releasing military aid — that have appeared in text messages and other communications between the senator, his wife, Nadine, and co-defendants Wael Hana and Fred Daibes.

Prosecutors argued “people’s understanding of acts” in communications aren’t the same thing as the acts themselves, as in the case of a 2022 text from Nadine to Hana about arms sales to Egypt that read: “Bob had to sign off on this.”

But Stein didn’t buy it, noting recent court precedents that have made public corruption charges tougher to prosecute and such convictions less likely to stand.

“I am not going to admit a document that has a core legislative act of the defendant in it,” he said again Tuesday during an argument after jurors had left for the day.

Longtime relationships

Prosecutors on Tuesday also called to the stand two women who have worked for Hana and Daibes.

One, Jamela Maali, told jurors she has worked for Daibes for 15 years, including 13 years as his executive assistant. Daibes is a real estate developer and bank founder in Edgewater accused of bribing Menendez with gold bars and cash to interfere in a federal bank fraud case he faced and to publicly support the Qatari government so that a Qatari investment company would invest in one of Daibes’ properties.

Maali’s testimony helped underscore the long, mutually beneficial relationship Menendez, Daibes, and Hana shared. She also linked Nadine Menendez to the businessmen’s finances, as did testimony from John Moldovan, Hana’s former in-house counsel.

Maali said she met Hana in 2018 at a fundraiser Daibes threw for the senator at his restaurant Le Jardin in Edgewater. Soon afterward, Daibes asked Maali if she’d like to work on the side helping Hana launch a startup company, which became IS EG Halal. Prosecutors say Hana bribed the Menendezes to secure a lucrative monopoly on halal beef exports to Egypt.

Moldovan had testified Monday that Hana paid about $23,000 to rescue Nadine Menendez’s Englewood Cliffs home from foreclosure. Tuesday, he told jurors Hana planned to hire Nadine as a consultant and pay her $10,000 a month. She named her venture Strategic International Business Consultants LLC, but she never signed a contract Moldovan drafted and he never saw her work, he added.

Prosecutors have said it was a “sham job,” and defense attorney Lawrence Lustberg said Hana paid her $30,000 before he fired her after three months for doing no work.

Maali also told jurors Daibes ran a lending company called East-West Funding. Moldovan testified Tuesday that East-West Funding tried to buy out Nadine Menendez’s entire mortgage from the lender that had foreclosed on her. At that time, she still owed about $270,000 on a $320,750 mortgage she took out in 2007, he testified Monday.

The trial is expected to pick back up again Tuesday, after the holiday weekend.

Nadine Menendez, who is battling breast cancer, will be tried separately. Stein has scheduled a hearing in her case for July.