US Senator Bob Menendez pleaded not guilty on Wednesday (27 September) to charges of taking bribes from three New Jersey businessmen while calls for his resignation from fellow Democrats are growing.
But to those who took the time to read the district court of New York’s 39-page sealed indictment of Menendez, his wife and the three ‘businessmen’, it is clear that the US law enforcement has followed Menendez’s every move, probably since 2018, and has built a solid dossier that may send him, his wife, and the other three defendants to jail.
To Europeans, the Menendez case bears a striking resemblance to Qatargate, the still-unfolding scandal which revealed how foreign governments, namely Qatar and Morocco, funnelled via their secret services hundreds of thousands of euros into the hands of a ring of European Parliament lawmakers eager to render various “services”.
In the case of Menendez, it was the secret services of Egypt that reportedly paid him and his wife hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The kickback was for ensuring that the multi-billion dollar US military aid to Egypt kept flowing, while in reality, it should have been stopped or frozen under conditionalities, including issues such as human rights.
There is a “Hollywood” element in both scandals: In the case of Eva Kailli, it was her companion. For Menendez, it was the girlfriend, whom he married in 2020. Both obviously played a substantial role.
In the EU case, NGOs were set up to help fund the scheme, while in the Menendez case, his wife set up a consultancy, saying, as quoted in the indictment: “Every time I’m in a middle person for a deal, I am asking to be paid, and this is my consulting company”.
There are also some differences.
It appears that the US case, apart from lobbying in exchange for bribes, also has elements of intelligence-gathering to the profit of a foreign country, in other words, espionage.
It also appears that in US circles, many knew or suspected Menendez of doing something unsavoury. Allegations of corruption have haunted the senator for more than a decade, pundits say, and publications attest.
In contrast, the Qatargate scandal came out of the blue, even to Brussels insiders.
Also, Menendez is a much more powerful politician than the string of MEPs in the spotlight in Brussels. Reportedly, the senator single-handedly blocked passage of bipartisan legislation in 2020 that would have strengthened the law regulating foreign influence and lobbying in Washington, Senate records show.
In 1938, the US Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act, referred to by the acronym FARA. It did this to expose Nazi propaganda and identify foreign attempts to influence policymakers and the American public. The bill was last updated in 1966. Menendez prevented its refurbishing.
This is an important detail: Foreign Agent legislation is not a Russian invention, as some are inclined to believe these days. By the way, the EU is also mulling introducing such legislation following the Qatargate scandal. But that’s a long shot.
For Europeans, it now becomes clear why Menendez opposed the sale of US F16s to Turkey. It has been Egypt’s policy to keep Turkey down.
What is still not clear is why he opposed sanctions against Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline bringing gas to Western Europe. The indictment contains no mention of Russia or Gazprom.
To some extent, the US scandal gives solace to those in the EU who felt ashamed about the politicians they had elected. US democracy obviously has its rotten fruits as well.
But hopefully, the biggest difference should not be the outcome.
The Belgian legal case risks collapsing after Kaili’s lawyers managed to oust the judge who started the investigation, Michel Claise, by bringing up accusations of conflict of interest. Now, the strategy of Kaili’s defence team is to change the course of the trial toward a mistrial based on procedural errors.
It’s unlikely that something similar could happen in the US case, but never say never.
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Look out for…
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]