US senator Bob Menendez has pleaded not guilty to federal charges accusing him of accepting bribes of cash and gold bars in exchange for using his political influence to secretly advance Egyptian interests and do favours for local businessmen.
The New Jersey politician made his initial court appearance in Manhattan’s federal court on Wednesday, days after prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging vast corruption by the Democrat, who was forced to step down as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being indicted.
A lawyer entered the plea on his behalf.
A defiant Menendez said allegations he abused his power to line his pockets are baseless.
He said he is confident he will be exonerated and has no intention of leaving the Senate.
But calls for Menendez to resign continued to mount on Wednesday, with Illinois senator Dick Durbin saying “he should step down”.
More than half of Senate Democrats have now said Menendez should resign, including fellow New Jersey senator Cory Booker, who said the indictment includes “shocking allegations of corruption and specific, disturbing details of wrongdoing”.
It is the second corruption case in a decade against Menendez, whose last trial involving different allegations ended with jurors failing to reach a verdict in 2017.
Authorities say they found nearly 500,000 dollars (£412,057.50) in cash, much of it hidden in clothing and closets, as well as more than 100,000 dollars (£82,411.50) in gold bars in a search of the New Jersey home Menendez, 69, shares with his wife.
Charged alongside Menendez is his wife, Nadine, who prosecutors say played a key role in collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from three New Jersey businessmen seeking help from the veteran politician.
A lawyer for Nadine Menendez entered a not guilty plea for her on Wednesday.
Prosecutors allege repeated actions by Menendez to benefit the authoritarian government of Egypt.
They say he also tried to interfere in criminal investigations involving associates, in one case pushing to install in New Jersey a federal prosecutor who he believed he could influence to derail a case.
Two of the businessmen, Jose Uribe and Fred Daibes, were also arraigned and pleaded not guilty.
The third, Wael Hana, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges including conspiracy to commit bribery.
Hana was arrested at Kennedy Airport on Tuesday after returning voluntarily from Egypt to face the charges, and he was ordered freed pending trial.
Menendez, in his first public remarks after last week’s indictment, said on Monday the cash found in his home was drawn from his personal savings accounts over the years and kept on hand for emergencies.
One of the envelopes full of cash found at his home, however, bore Daibes’ DNA and was marked with the property developer’s return address, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors said Hana promised to put Menendez’s wife on his company’s payroll in a low or no-show job in exchange for Menendez using his influential post to facilitate foreign military sales and financing to Egypt.
Prosecutors allege Hana also paid 23,000 dollars (£18,954.64) toward her home mortgage, wrote 30,000 dollar (£24,723.45) checks to her consulting company, promised her envelopes of cash, sent her exercise equipment and bought some of the gold bars found in the couple’s home.
The indictment alleges repeated actions by Menendez to benefit Egypt, despite US government misgivings over the country’s human rights record which in recent years have prompted Congress to attach restrictions on aid.
Prosecutors, who detailed meetings and dinners between Menendez and Egyptian officials, say Menendez gave sensitive US government information to Egyptian officials and ghostwrote a letter to fellow senators encouraging them to lift a hold on 300 million dollars (£24.7 million) in aid to Egypt, one of the top recipients of US military support.
Prosecutors have accused Menendez of pressuring a US agricultural official to stop opposing a lucrative deal that gave Hana’s company a monopoly over certifying that imported meat met religious standards.
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