The FBI says that New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez tried to interfere in two criminal matters in exchange for payoffs — and now NBC New York has learned the names of three people the Democratic senator allegedly wanted to pressure.
According to numerous sources familiar with the matter, two of the people were trying to become the state’s U.S. Attorney. The third was, at the time, New Jersey’s attorney general, sources said.
In an indictment, the three officials who were allegedly contacted are unnamed. But several sources said Menendez improperly reached out to the then-New Jersey attorney general, the now-sitting New Jersey U.S. Attorney, and the current Hudson County Prosecutor.
The senator allegedly contacted all three with the goal of trying to corruptly fix two criminal matters.
In 2019, Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez wanted to be the next U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, even though she had no past federal law enforcement experience. Prosecutors said around that time, Sen. Menendez was taking cash and gold bars from Fred Daibes, who was facing federal bank fraud charges.
In exchange for cash and gold, prosecutors said New Jersey’s senior senator wanted to recommend to the White House a U.S. Attorney candidate “who Menendez believed could be influenced by Menendez with respect to Daibes’ case … to act favorably in Daibes’s case.”
One candidate Menendez put forward was Suarez. According to the indictment, Daibes believed Suarez “would likely be sympathetic to him.”
The indictment does not detail why Daibes believed Suarez would be beneficial, leaving open questions as to why Menendez was apparently backing Suarez.
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“What’s troubling about all of this is that a criminal defendant like Daibes shouldn’t have any reason to believe that a candidate for the U.S. Attorney’s office would be favorable to his case,” said NBC legal analyst Danny Cevallos said.
In the end, Suarez did not get the nomination in part after the Star-Ledger raised ethics concerns from her recent past. Suarez declined to comment for this story.
Phil Sellinger ultimately got the U.S. Attorney post with Menendez’s support. But before that happened, while a candidate for the job, the senator allegedly brought up the Daibes case — and no other case — with Sellinger. Federal prosecutors said Sellinger told Menendez he would likely recuse himself from the Daibes bank fraud case. That’s when Menendez, according to the indictment, sought out Suarez as a possibility.
The FBI also said defendant Jose Uribe gave a Mercedes to Menendez and his wife as he sought help with a criminal investigation into his associates being run out of the New Jersey state attorney general’s office. In exchange, Menendez allegedly called then-New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal directly about the matter.
Cevallos called that allegation troubling.
“It’s bad enough if it’s true that the senator contacted the New Jersey attorney general to get favorable treatment in an investigation for a friend of the senator’s, but it is particularly egregious if the senator was doing so because he was receiving gifts from that person being investigated,” Cevallos said.
Grewal — director of the Security and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement — did not respond to requests for comment through a spokesperson. The current New Jersey state attorney general said his office is reviewing the matters raised in the indictment.
New York U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, who is leading the bribery prosecution, has said there is no evidence any outcome of the two New Jersey criminal matters were affected by the senator’s alleged efforts.
Menendez, his wife and the three businessmen deny any wrongdoing and have pleaded not guilty. Sen. Menendez continues to say he will fight the charges and stay in office.
Jonathan Dienst is chief justice contributor for NBC News and chief investigative reporter for WNBC-TV in New York.