NEW YORK (AP) — In late 2020, Sen. Bob Menendez met with Philip Sellinger, an attorney in private practice and a former fundraiser for the senator, to assess his potential as the next U.S. attorney for the state of New Jersey — and to discuss a particular case.
If appointed, Sellinger would take control of one of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s offices, a position that gives him the power to take down mob bosses and prosecute corrupt officials.
But Menendez, federal prosecutors say, was obsessed with a less important issue: making sure the future prosecutor would act sympathetically toward a friend of his accused of bank fraud, real estate developer Fred Daibes.
Daibes is now a key figure in a vast corruption case filed against Menendez, his wife and several other associates. He accuses Menendez and his wife of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, gold bars and a luxury car in exchange for a series of favors, including secretly helping the Egyptian government on policy issues. American and by interfering in three criminal investigations, including that involving Daibes.
The indictment unsealed Friday by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan says Daibes paid bribes, including envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash and gold bars worth more than $120 000 dollars.
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing, blaming the prosecution on “forces behind the scenes” who “cannot accept that a first-generation Latin American, from humble beginnings, could become a U.S. senator.” Daibes’ lawyer, Tim Donohue, said he was confident his client would be “completely exonerated of all charges.”
Both Daibes and Menendez became power players in the same part of urban communities across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where local politics and real estate have long involved trading favors.
At his base in Edgewater, New Jersey, just upriver from Union City, where Menendez once served as mayor, Daibes is widely credited with the construction of a “gold coast” of luxury skyscrapers along the former industrial waterfront.
That achievement may have been aided by Daibes’ warm relationships with a number of Edgewater officials, who turned down the community’s rival developers and approved his lucrative deals, according to lawsuits and a recent report. report by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.
This report reveals that Daibes rented a discounted apartment to the mayor of Edgewater and provided several million dollars in revenue to a city councilor’s business, while acquiring development rights and reneging on his promises to build affordable housing.
It indicates that people opposed to Daibes risk reprisals. Former Edgewater Mayor James Delaney said his political support evaporated when he complained about what he believed was a corrupt deal between local officials and Daibes. He ultimately did not run for office.
“This report is a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in allowing an influential, politically connected, unelected private citizen to hold inordinate power in governmental affairs,” the commission wrote.
Delaney’s ex-wife, Bridget Delaney, who worked for Daibes at his restaurant for 15 years, said the couple was effectively driven out of Edgewater, ruining their lives.
“There is fraud everywhere in this city,” she told The Associated Press on Friday. “When he’s in prison, maybe this will bring him some relief.”
In 2018, Daibes was charged by federal prosecutors in Newark with obtaining loans under false pretenses from a bank he owned. The charges were serious and punishable by several 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’s application after their December 2020 job interview because the lawyer told him he would likely have to recuse himself from any cases involving Daibes due to a previous case in which he represented the developer.
But after another candidate failed, Menendez ultimately recommended him for the job.
After Sellinger was sworn in, the Justice Department had him step aside from prosecuting Daibes and put another lead prosecutor in charge. Menendez, according to the indictment, then harassed Sellinger and the prosecutor handling Daibes’ case, calling them repeatedly.
Menendez also asked one of his political advisers to let Sellinger know that he was unhappy with how the Daibes case was being handled, according to the indictment.
During the months of 2022, as Menendez attempted to influence the handling of the case, Daibes arranged for Menendez’s wife, Nadine, to receive two gold bars, worth approximately 60 ,000 dollars each, as well as an envelope containing thousands of dollars in cash, according to the indictment. said.
At one point, Menendez did a web search to find out “how much is a pound of gold worth?” »
David Schertler, Nadine Menendez’s attorney, said she “denies any criminal conduct and will vigorously contest these accusations in court.”
Sellinger and his lead prosecutor told investigators they hid Menendez’s attempts to influence the case from the prosecution’s team of attorneys and took no steps to intervene, the filing states of accusation.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey noted Sellinger’s recusal, adding that all activities related to this case were handled appropriately consistent with the principles of federal prosecution.
Last year, following a delayed trial, Daibes pleaded guilty in his bank fraud case. Under the terms of the agreement, he would receive only probation, according to his attorney. But his sentencing has been repeatedly delayed and is now expected to take place next month.