Senator Menendez held 'strange' secret meetings with Egyptian officials, Senate staffer testifies • New Jersey Monitor

As part of her work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sarah Arkin was tasked with briefing senators on global affairs, coordinating their diplomatic meetings and travel, and accompanying them on these encounters at home and abroad.

When Senator Bob Menendez began secretly meeting and corresponding with Egyptian officials outside of those traditional channels in 2018, she and her colleagues found it “odd,” she testified Monday. Arkin's testimony began the seventh week of Menendez's bribery trial in Manhattan federal court.

Menendez chaired the powerful committee from January 2021 until his indictment in September.

“An important part of my job is preparing him for these meetings,” Arkin said. “I didn't know exactly who he was talking to, what information he had or didn't have, who he wanted to meet or where the information was coming from.”

Prosecutors say it was intentional. They allege that the senior New Jersey senator, a Democrat, violated standard protocol by making an illegal deal with his friend and co-defendant Wael Hana, who gave him cash and gold bars in exchange for the senator currying favor with Egyptian officials so that they could a lucrative monopoly to export halal meat there.

Arkin told jurors that she became Menendez's foreign policy adviser in 2016 and joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2018, where she now works as a senior staff attorney.

When questioned by prosecutor Daniel Richenthal, Arkin testified that Menendez had always been an outspoken critic of Egypt because of its dismal human rights record. But in the spring of 2019, he told Arkin that he preferred to express his humanitarian concerns about Egypt more quietly and privately. He instructed her to tone down a letter she had written denouncing the mistreatment and imprisonment of critics and other violations of democracy, Arkin testified.

He also arranged several meetings with Egyptian officials they did not know without the knowledge of his staff and did not inform staff afterward as he normally does, Arkin said. Even Egyptian citizens working at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC, did not know an official Menendez had Arkin call, she added.

“Well, my husband at the embassy doesn't know anyone by that name, but he will try to track him down,” Arkin wrote to her colleague Damian Murphy, who is now the committee's human resources director.

“That's weird. How big is the message?” Murphy replied.

Arkin replied, “It’s pretty big, but not THAT big.”

According to witnesses, however, Menendez became increasingly annoyed the more questions Arkin asked.

When he decided to travel to Egypt, he told Arkin, she had angered the Egyptians and banned her from traveling, even though she normally makes such trips and specifically urged him to visit Egypt, which has historically received more U.S. military aid than any other country except Israel, she said. Instead, he took his then-girlfriend and now-wife Nadine, who had “a lot of opinions” about the trip and was “very involved in the planning,” Arkin said.

Richenthal showed the jury a text exchange in which Arkin and Murphy puzzled over everything.

“All this Egypt stuff is very strange. I've never seen anything like it,” Murphy texted Arkin.

Richenthal also showed the jury messages that indicated an unusually friendly relationship between the Menendezes and the Egyptian officials.

In one of those conversations, Egyptian Major General Khaled Ahmed Shawky Osman called the senator “Bob” – a familiarity that was unusual among people who had dealings with the senator, Arkin said.

During his “strange” dealings with Egyptian officials, Arkin said in his testimony, the committee released billions in military aid and weapons to Egypt and Menendez was involved in several initiatives in the Middle East, including a dam in Ethiopia with impacts on the Nile and Egypt, and a natural gas deal off the Egyptian coast.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Avi Weitzman, Arkin testified that Menendez wanted to tone down his public criticism of Egypt because New Jersey is home to a large population of Coptic Christian Egyptians who support Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

looking ahead

Earlier on Monday, defense attorneys cross-examined FBI Special Agent Paul Van Wie, who presented a chain of emails, text messages, and other correspondence and documents that prosecutors had presented to support their case.

During Weitzman's questioning, Van Wie read texts that prosecutors did not show to jurors, suggesting that a Bulgari handbag and an extravagant bouquet of flowers given to Nadine Menendez by co-defendant Fred Daibes were not bribes but birthday gifts.

Weitzman also tried to refute Van Wies's testimony last week when he produced text messages, Zillow listings and other documents showing that the Menendezes were looking for a home and had looked at homes valued at over $5 million. This happened just a month before FBI agents visited her house in Englewood Cliffs in June 2022 with a search warrant and seized more than $486,000 in cash, 13 gold bars and other items they said were bribes.

“Are you aware that people often use Zillow as an escape fantasy?” Weitzman asked, which made the jury laugh.

Weitzman also refuted prosecutors' claims that Menendez repeatedly Googled the price of gold and showed other online searches that suggested the senator's wife had Googled things through his account. Menendez's online history showed searches for everything from “best blow-dry salons in Washington, DC” to “how do you say girlfriend in Spanish.” The senator is fluent in Spanish.

However, prosecutor Paul Monteleoni refuted this defense by showing in a forward text messages between the senator and his wife after she asked him to find the contact information of a hair salon for a friend.

Arkin is expected to remain on the witness stand for further cross-examination on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have said they will continue to question several witnesses, including Shannon Kopplin, senior counsel and staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, and expect to complete their testimony this week. Defense attorneys for Menendez and his co-defendants Hana and Fred Daibes expect to take up to two weeks to present their defense. The case is expected to go to the jury for deliberations the week of July 8.

The case is behind schedule. On Monday, it drew several sharp criticisms from Judge Sidney H. Stein, who chided defense attorneys for “misleading the government” with frequent last-minute motions.

Menendez, 70, who has been in the Senate since 2006, is accused of acting as a foreign agent, fraud, racketeering, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and similar crimes. It is his second corruption trial in seven years; the first ended in 2017 with a failed jury agreement.

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