Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was charged on Friday with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, including bars of gold bullion, to wield his power abroad and at home.
The three-count federal indictment depicted a brazen plan hatched during furtive dinners, in text messages and on encrypted calls — much of it aimed at increasing U.S. assistance to Egypt and aiding businessmen in New Jersey.
Mr. Menendez’s wife, Nadine Menendez, is accused of acting as a go-between, passing messages to an American-Egyptian businessman, Wael Hana, who maintained close connections with Egyptian military and intelligence officials, the indictment said. In one text, to an Egyptian general, Mr. Hana referred to the senator, who held sway over military sales, financing and other aid, as “our man.”
Mr. Menendez, in a strongly worded rebuke to prosecutors, said that he was confident the matter would be “successfully resolved once all of the facts are presented.”
Friday’s charges described an intermingling of the bare-knuckle, back-room dealings of Mr. Menendez’s home state of New Jersey and delicate matters of security in the Middle East. They represent the latest episode in a decades-long political career that took Mr. Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, from the Union City, N.J., school board to the halls of the Senate, a career marked by accusations of corruption and an earlier federal indictment that ended in a hung jury.
The new charges threaten Mr. Menendez’s vast political power, as well as his freedom.
Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a close Democratic ally, called on Mr. Menendez to resign, an admonition that unleashed a torrent of similar messages from political leaders throughout the state. Mr. Menendez insisted that he would not heed them. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said in a statement Friday evening.
Mr. Menendez did send a letter to Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate majority leader, informing him that he was stepping down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as required by rules the Senate Democrats adopted to govern themselves.
The corruption scheme, according to the indictment, extended beyond foreign aid. Mr. Menendez is accused of using his position to influence criminal investigations of two other New Jersey businessmen, one of whom was a longtime fund-raiser for Mr. Menendez.
Toward that end, the senator recommended that President Biden nominate a lawyer, Philip R. Sellinger, to be U.S. attorney for New Jersey because Mr. Menendez believed he could influence Mr. Sellinger’s prosecution of the fund-raiser, the indictment said. Mr. Sellinger, who was ultimately confirmed for the post, did not bend, prosecutors said.
Mr. Menendez is also accused of meddling in an investigation by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, using “advice and pressure” in an attempt to persuade a senior prosecutor to go easy in the case of two associates of a man who gave Ms. Menendez a Mercedes-Benz convertible. The prosecutor considered Mr. Menendez’s actions “inappropriate and did not agree to intervene,” according to the indictment.
In exchange for all those actions, the indictment said, the senator and his wife accepted cash, gold, payments toward a home mortgage, the luxury car and other valuable things. The day after a trip to Egypt in 2021, the indictment said, Mr. Menendez asked in an internet query “how much is one kilo of gold worth.”
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference announcing the charges that Mr. Menendez’s actions were meant to serve a favored few.
The prosecutor said that Mr. Menendez’s Senate website explicitly detailed the kinds of services he would not provide because they would be improper, among them influencing private business matters and intervening in judicial issues and criminal trials.
“Constituent service is part of any legislator’s job — Senator Menendez is no different,” Mr. Williams said. But, he added, “Behind the scenes, Senator Menendez was doing those things for certain people — the people who were bribing him and his wife.”
Soon after the news conference, Mr. Menendez issued an angry page-long denunciation of the charges, blaming them on unnamed “forces behind the scenes” that have “repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave.”
“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” he added. “They have misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office. On top of that, not content with making false claims against me, they have attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had before she and I even met.”
Ms. Menendez’s lawyer, David Schertler, said that his client had broken no laws.
“Mrs. Menendez denies any criminal conduct and will vigorously contest these charges in court,” Mr. Schertler said.
The charges against Mr. Menendez, 69, and the others follow a lengthy investigation by the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors in Manhattan, and they come nearly six years after his trial on unrelated claims of corruption ended with a hung jury.
James Smith, who heads the New York F.B.I. office, said Friday that the conduct detailed in the indictment “damages the public’s faith in our system of government and brings undue scorn to the honest and dedicated public servants who carry out their duties on a daily basis.”
The businessmen named in the indictment, which was unsealed in Manhattan federal court, are Mr. Hana, a longtime friend of Ms. Menendez who founded a halal meat certification business; Fred Daibes, a New Jersey real estate developer and fund-raiser for Mr. Menendez; and Jose Uribe, who works in trucking and insurance.
The 39-page indictment charged the senator, his wife and the businessmen with conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. It also charges Mr. Menendez and his wife with conspiracy to commit extortion under the color of official right, meaning that they used his official position to force someone to give them something of value.
According to the indictment, Ms. Menendez at one point bragged that her actions would make Mr. Hana “more powerful than the president of Egypt.”
In 2018, Ms. Menendez, 56, and Mr. Hana arranged meetings and dinners with Egyptian officials and Mr. Menendez, whom she had just begun dating. There, the Egyptian officials made requests related to foreign military sales and financing, among other things. In return for Mr. Menendez’s promise that he would facilitate such sales, the indictment said, Mr. Hana promised to put Ms. Menendez on his payroll in a job where she would perform little or no work.
After one meeting with Egyptian officials, Mr. Menendez obtained from the State Department nonpublic information about the number and nationality of people serving at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, the indictment said. It notes that such information is highly sensitive and its disclosure could threaten security.
Mr. Menendez texted the information to Ms. Menendez, who forwarded the message to Mr. Hana. He then sent it to an Egyptian official, the indictment said.
At a dinner around the same time, Mr. Menendez disclosed to Mr. Hana other nonpublic information about United States military aid, the indictment said. Shortly after, Mr. Hana texted another Egyptian official: “The ban on small arms and ammunition to Egypt has been lifted. That means sales can begin. That will include sniper rifles among other articles.”
The indictment also showed the cozy relationship Ms. Menendez and Mr. Hana fostered between her husband and Egyptian officials. Once, the indictment said, Mr. Menendez met in his Senate office with Ms. Menendez, Mr. Hana and an Egyptian intelligence official to discuss a human rights matter that had been affecting aid to the country.
Later that evening, the group headed to a steakhouse in Washington for dinner.
Mr. Hana started operating his company, IS EG Halal, in 2019 and within a year the Egyptian government had made it the sole entity authorized to certify that halal meat imported to Egypt from anywhere in the world had been prepared according to Islamic law.
When a “high-level” official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture argued that the monopoly harmed U.S. interests, Mr. Menendez called the official and insisted “that the U.S.D.A. stop opposing IS EG Halal’s status as sole halal certifier,” the indictment said.
The halal company provided revenue from which Mr. Hana “could make good on the bribe payments he had promised,” the indictment said.
Mr. Hana also received assistance from Mr. Daibes and Mr. Uribe, the other businessmen charged in the case, in providing payments to Ms. Menendez.
At one point in 2019, Ms. Menendez complained to her husband that she had not received a check she expected.
“I am soooooo upset,” she texted Mr. Menendez, adding that Mr. Hana had not left her an envelope. She asked whether she should text Mr. Daibes, but the senator responded, “No, you should not text or email.”
Shortly thereafter, Ms. Menendez called Mr. Daibes, and Mr. Hana’s company issued a $10,000 check to a consulting firm run by Ms. Menendez.
During a search of the couple’s home in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and a safe deposit box in Ms. Menendez’s name, investigators found $550,000 in cash, much of it hidden in clothing, closets and a safe. Some cash was stuffed in envelopes that contained the fingerprints or DNA of Mr. Daibes or his driver, who was not named.
Investigators also found more than $100,000 worth of gold bars, some of which were featured in photographs in the indictment.
Mr. Hana’s spokeswoman said that, based on an initial review of the charges, “they have absolutely no merit.”
Mr. Daibes’s lawyer, Tim Donohue, said that he was confident that Mr. Daibes would be “completely exonerated of all charges.”
A representative for Mr. Uribe could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mr. Menendez, his wife and their three co-defendants are expected to appear in Manhattan federal court on Wednesday, according to Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for the Southern District.
The charges are not the senator’s first encounter with the law. In 2015, Mr. Menendez was indicted in New Jersey on bribery charges in what federal prosecutors called a scheme between the senator and a wealthy eye doctor to trade political favors for gifts worth close to $1 million, including luxury vacations in the Caribbean and campaign contributions. Mr. Menendez’s corruption trial ended in a mistrial in November 2017, after the jury said it was unable to reach a verdict.
The judge later acquitted Mr. Menendez of several charges and the Justice Department dismissed the others.
Friday’s indictment resounded anew in Washington and in New Jersey, as members of the party and Congress called for Mr. Menendez to step down. However, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a close ally of Mr. Menendez’s, remained silent about the accusations and the calls for resignation.
Mr. Menendez is already facing at least one Democratic challenger in his planned run for re-election to a fourth Senate term, and the Republican mayor of Mendham Borough, N.J., has also announced that she will compete for the seat.
If Mr. Menendez were to quit, as Mr. Murphy has suggested, the governor would name a successor.
“These are serious charges that implicate national security and the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement.
“The alleged facts are so serious,” he added, “that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.