NEW YORK (AP) — Sen. Bob Menendez on Wednesday sought dismissal of charges, including bribery, as his lawyers told a judge that New York federal prosecutors are making claims that are “outrageously false” and “distort reality.”
The New Jersey Democrat and his wife pleaded not guilty after they were charged last fall with accepting bribes of gold bars, cash and a luxury car in return for help from the senator that would benefit three New Jersey businessmen, who were also arrested and pleaded not guilty.
The indictment has since been updated with charges alleging that Menendez used his political influence to secretly advance Egypt’s interests and that he acted favorably to Qatar’s government to aid a businessman.
“The Senator stands behind all of his official actions and decisions, and will be proud to defend them at trial,” the lawyers wrote.
A trial is scheduled for May 5. Menendez is free on $100,000 bail.
Menendez’s lawyers said in court papers that their client’s conduct was “constitutionally immune” and none of it could serve as the basis for criminal charges.
“The government’s accusations in this case — that he sold his office and even sold out his nation — are outrageously false, and indeed distort reality,” the lawyers wrote.
They said the government is free to prosecute members of Congress for agreeing to exchange legislative action for personal benefits as long as it doesn’t attack the integrity of the legislative acts themselves.
“But here, the Indictment does not try to walk that line; it flouts it entirely,” the lawyers said.
They said prosecutors were wrong to charge Menendez in connection with his decision to contact local state prosecutors to advocate on behalf of New Jersey constituents or to use his decision to invite constituents to meetings with foreign dignitaries as evidence against him.
“And the government goes so far as to impugn the Senator for introducing constituents to investors abroad. None of this is illegal, or even improper,” the lawyers wrote.
The indictment claims Menendez directly interfered in criminal investigations, including by pushing to install a federal prosecutor in New Jersey he believed could be influenced in a criminal case against a businessman and associate of the senator. Prosecutors also alleged that he tried to use his position of power to meddle in a separate criminal investigation by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office.
Menendez’s lawyers said the novel charge that Menendez conspired with his wife and a businessman to act as an agent of the Egyptian government “fundamentally disrupts the separation of powers.”
Menendez, 70, was forced to step down from his powerful post leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after he was charged in September. Prosecutors said the senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, accepted bribes over the past five years from the New Jersey businessmen in exchange for a variety of corrupt acts.
In October, he was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of the Egyptian government. As a member of Congress, Menendez is prohibited from acting as an agent for a foreign government.
His lawyers said in their Manhattan federal court filing Wednesday that the charge empowers the executive and judicial branches of government to second-guess the way the senator chooses to engage with foreign representatives as he carries out his duties.
As an example, the lawyers said that a future president might decide to prosecute legislative enemies as agents of Ukraine for supporting aid during its war with Russia or as agents of China for resisting a proposed ban of TikTok, or as agents of Israel for supporting military aid to fight Hamas.
“The Court should not permit this novel and dangerous encroachment on legislative independence,” the lawyers said.
They said there was “overwhelming, indisputable evidence” that Menendez was independent from any foreign official.
“As the government knows from its own investigation, far from doing Egypt’s bidding during the life of the alleged conspiracy, the Senator repeatedly held up military aid and took Egypt to task, challenging its government’s record for imprisoning political dissidents, running roughshod over the press, and other human rights abuses,” they said.
The lawyers said that their arguments Wednesday were just the start of legal challenges to be filed in the next week, including claims that the indictment was filed in the wrong courthouse and unjustly groups separate schemes into single conspiracy counts.
A spokesperson for prosecutors declined to comment.
Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press