NEW YORK (AP) — In late 2020, Sen. Bob Menendez met with Philip Sellinger, a private attorney and former senatorial fundraiser, to assess his potential suitability as the next U.S. attorney for the state of New Jersey — and discuss one case in particular.
If appointed, Sellinger would take control of one of the country’s largest prosecutors’ offices, a post vested with the power to bust Mafia bosses and crack down on corrupt officials.
But according to federal prosecutors, Menendez was fixated on a less significant matter: He wanted to ensure that the future prosecutor would be sympathetic to a friend of his real estate developer, Fred Daibes, who was charged with bank fraud.
Daibes is now a key figure in a comprehensive bribery case filed against Menendez, his wife and several other employees. Menendez and his wife are accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of cash, gold bars and a luxury car in return for a variety of favors, including secretly assisting the Egyptian government on U.S. policy issues and interfering in three criminal investigations the ones with Daibes.
The indictment unsealed Friday by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan said Daibes paid bribes, including envelopes full of thousands of dollars in cash and gold bars worth more than $120,000.
Menendez denied wrongdoing and blamed the charges on “forces behind the scenes” who “cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to become a U.S. senator.” A lawyer for Daibes, Tim Donohue, said he was confident his client would be “fully acquitted of all charges.”
Both Daibes and Menendez rose to prominence as powerbrokers in the same urban communities across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where local politics and real estate have long been favoritism.
Daibes is in his hometown of Edgewater, New Jersey, just upriver from Union City, where Menendez was once mayor widely recognized with the construction of a “Gold Coast” of luxury high-rises along the former industrial waterfront.
That success may have been aided by Daibes’ good relationship with a number of Edgewater officials, who turned away rival developers from the community and agreed to his lucrative deals, according to lawsuits and a recent report report by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.
That report found that Daibes rented a discounted apartment to the mayor of Edgewater, generating millions of dollars in revenue for a local councilman’s business, while simultaneously acquiring development rights and breaking promises to build affordable housing.
It said people who opposed Daibes faced reprisals. Former Edgewater Mayor James Delaney testified that his political support disappeared when he complained about what he said was a corrupt agreement between local officials and Daibes. Ultimately, he did not run for re-election.
“This report is a cautionary tale about the inherent dangers of allowing an influential, politically connected, and unelected private citizen to exercise outsized power in government affairs,” the commission wrote.
Delaney’s former wife, Bridget Delaney, who worked for Daibes at his restaurant for 15 years, said the couple was virtually forced out of Edgewater, ruining their lives.
“There is fraud all over the city,” she told The Associated Press on Friday. “If he’s in prison, maybe that will bring some relief.”
In 2018, Daibes was charged by federal prosecutors in Newark with obtaining loans under false pretenses from a bank he owned. The allegations were serious and carried the risk of years in prison.
Daibes was still awaiting trial in 2021, when Menendez, as New Jersey’s senior senator, played a key role in advising President Joe Biden’s new administration on potential candidates to become the state’s top federal prosecutor.
According to the indictment, Menendez initially rejected Sellinger as a candidate after their interview in December 2020 because the attorney informed him that he would likely have to withdraw from any case involving Daibes due to a previous matter in which he represented the developer.
But after another candidate failed, Menendez finally recommended him for the job.
After Sellinger was sworn in, the Justice Department let him withdraw from the Daibes prosecution and transferred responsibility for it to another senior prosecutor. Menendez, the indictment says, then harassed both Sellinger and the prosecutor in charge of Daibes’ case by calling them multiple times.
Menendez also asked one of his political advisers to tell Sellinger that he was upset with the way the Daibes case was being handled, the indictment says.
During the months of 2022, as Menendez attempted to influence the handling of the case, Daibes arranged for Menendez’s wife, Nadine, to place two gold bars worth around $60,000 each, as well as an envelope containing thousands of dollars received cash, the prosecution said.
At one point, Menendez did a web search for “How much is a kilo of gold worth?”
David Schertler, an attorney for Nadine Menendez, said she “denies any criminal conduct and will vigorously contest these allegations in court.”
Sellinger and his lead prosecutor told investigators they kept Menendez’s attempts to influence the case secret from the team of lawyers handling the prosecution and took no steps to intervene, the indictment said.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office acknowledged Sellinger’s refusal and added that all activities related to this matter were handled appropriately in accordance with federal law enforcement principles.
Last year, Daibes pleaded guilty after a delayed trial in his bank fraud case. Under the agreement, he would only receive probation, according to his attorney. However, his sentencing has been repeatedly postponed and is now scheduled to take place next month.