U.S. senator, Robert Menendez, has resigned as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, following bribery charges preferred against him.
Justice Department prosecutors alleged that 69-year-old Menendez and his wife, Nadine Arslanian, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for aid to Egypt’s government.
The couple have however denied the charges.
The embattled senator has rejected calls from fellow Democrats back in his home state of New Jersey to resign his seat.
Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, on Friday, said Menendez decided to step down as chairman of the influential committee “until the matter has been resolved”.
The New York Democrat said his colleague was “a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey”.
It is not the first time that Menendez, who has served in Congress since 2006, has had to give up the coveted post on the foreign relations panel.
He also stepped down in 2015 after being indicted in New Jersey on charges that he had accepted bribes from a Florida eye doctor. That case ended in a mistrial after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
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Maryland Democrat, Ben Cardin, who took over as the committee’s leading Democrat at the time, is expected again to temporarily ascend to fill the vacancy.
Menendez and Arslanian were accused of accepting bribes of cash, gold, payments towards a home mortgage, and a luxury vehicle from three New Jersey businessmen.
Prosecutors alleged that the pair accepted the money to secretly aid the Egyptian government and to enrich the three men – Wael Hana, Jose Uribe, and Fred Daibes.
According to the 39-page indictment released on Friday, Menendez’s leadership position and power as a senator enabled such influence-peddling.
The pair each faces three criminal counts – conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion under colour of official right.
In a statement from her lawyers, Arslanian denied any wrongdoing and said she would defend herself in court.
Reacting via a statement, Menendez said the allegations were politically motivated.
The Senate chairman said: “For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave.
“Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists.
“I am confident that this matter will be successfully resolved once all of the facts are presented and my fellow New Jerseyans will see this for what it is.”
But a wave of top Democrats, including at least four members of Congress from New Jersey, called for the lawmaker to resign.
New Jersey Governor, Phil Murphy, in a statement, said the allegations were “so serious that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state”.
“Therefore, I am calling for his immediate resignation,” Murphy added.
Under New Jersey law, if Menendez resigns from the Senate, the governor would appoint a temporary replacement to serve out the rest of his term.
His indictment comes after a years-long justice department investigation.
According to BBC, in the summer of 2022, federal agents executed search warrants at Menendez’s home and found evidence of the bribery agreements, including over $480,000 (£390,000) in cash, much of which was “stuffed into envelopes and hidden in clothing, closets and a safe”.
Agents said they also found a Mercedes-Benz luxury vehicle paid for by Uribe parked in the garage, as well as $100,000 of gold bars in the home, pictures of which were included in the indictment.
As a result of the charges, Menendez and his wife have been asked to forfeit several assets, including their New Jersey home.
Menendez, his wife, and their three co-defendants are scheduled to appear in Manhattan federal court on September 27, 2023.
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