How Menendez Tried and Failed to Place an Ally in a Key Federal Post

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By Ketrin Agustine

How Menendez Tried and Failed to Place an Ally in a Key Federal Post

An old friend of Senator Robert Menendez was in legal trouble. The government says the senator went to great lengths to try to install a friendly prosecutor.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey had a problem — and, prosecutors say, an opportunity. An old friend and political patron was facing federal prosecution. And as New Jersey’s senior senator, Mr. Menendez was in a position to help, by recommending the next leader of the office overseeing the case.

In early 2021, Mr. Menendez urged President Biden to nominate a lawyer he knew well as the state’s next U.S. attorney: Esther Suarez, a politically connected prosecutor in his home county. It did not go as planned.

When White House and Justice Department officials interviewed Ms. Suarez, they found her knowledge of federal law lacking, and they had substantial concerns about her qualifications, according to four people familiar with the sessions.

Mr. Menendez pushed for Ms. Suarez to be given another chance, the people said. But after a rare second interview, the result was the same.

The episode sheds new light on the lengths to which the government now says Mr. Menendez, a three-term Democrat, went to try to secure a friendly prosecutor in New Jersey’s top federal law enforcement position. Far from being routine politics, Mr. Menendez’s attempts to fill the position were part of a brazen scheme to sell his office for cash, gold bars and a Mercedes-Benz convertible, a federal indictment says.

The indictment includes charges that Mr. Menendez conspired to direct aid and weapons sales to Egypt, fueling questions about international espionage. But back in New Jersey, the search for a U.S. attorney was the centerpiece of a far more tawdry web of alleged corruption in which the senator sought to make his friend’s case vanish and pressured a senior official in the state attorney general’s office to quash insurance-fraud matters on behalf of another ally.

The senator’s attempts to influence the criminal matters failed.

A real estate tycoon who helped build up New Jersey’s waterfront, Fred Daibes is now a co-defendant in a case alleging a sprawling bribery plot.Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

“Fortunately, the public officials the senator sought to influence did not bend to the pressure,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said last month when he announced the charges against Mr. Menendez, his wife and three New Jersey businessmen. One of them, Fred Daibes, was the friend Mr. Menendez had in mind when selecting a U.S. attorney.

All five defendants have pleaded not guilty. The senator said he is innocent of all wrongdoing and has vigorously rejected calls for his resignation, presenting himself as a victim of overzealous prosecutors targeting him because he is Latino.

“The government is engaged in primitive hunting, by which the predator chases its prey until it’s exhausted and then kills it,” Mr. Menendez said last week. “This tactic won’t work.”

In a separate statement to The New York Times, the senator defended Ms. Suarez’s qualifications and said he had recommended her “based on her experience and credentials, both as a Latina jurist and prosecutor.”

Of all the allegations against Mr. Menendez, perhaps none cuts to the heart of the justice system as directly as the accusation that he tried to install and then influence a favorable U.S. attorney who would take over the case against Mr. Daibes.

A real estate tycoon who helped build up New Jersey’s waterfront, Mr. Daibes had been indicted in 2018 by the U.S. attorney’s office there in a bank fraud scheme.

Traditionally, in selecting U.S. attorneys and federal judges, presidents defer to their party’s senior senator in a state — in this case, Mr. Menendez.

And so, in late 2020, Mr. Menendez began meeting with potential candidates for the post, including Philip R. Sellinger, co-head of the New Jersey office of the international law firm Greenberg Traurig and a former federal prosecutor.

Mr. Menendez put forward Esther Suarez’s name for the post after first meeting with Philip R. Sellinger, who said he might have to recuse himself from the Daibes case.Kyle Mazza/Sopa Images, via Sipa US

Mr. Sellinger had contributed to Mr. Menendez’s Senate campaigns since 2006 and had co-hosted a fund-raiser as recently as June 2020, according to an invitation. He also gave $40,000 to a defense fund Mr. Menendez set up in 2014 to pay legal costs associated with an earlier federal indictment, according to Open Secrets; that case ended with a hung jury.

During his meeting with Mr. Sellinger, according to prosecutors, Mr. Menendez criticized the Daibes prosecution — the only case he mentioned — and said he hoped Mr. Sellinger would look into it if he got the post.

After Mr. Sellinger told the senator he might have to recuse himself from the case because he had once handled a matter in private practice involving Mr. Daibes, the senator chose to recommend a different person, the indictment says. Though it does not name her, that person was widely known to be Ms. Suarez.

Ms. Suarez would have been well known to Mr. Menendez. She worked for Scarinci Hollenbeck, a law firm led by one of his oldest confidants, and as legal counsel to his hometown, Union City. In 2015, after a stint as a state judge, she was sworn in as the top prosecutor for Hudson County, where Mr. Menendez built his political network.

She developed a reputation as a solid Democrat, with close relationships to one of Mr. Menendez’s protégés, Mayor Brian Stack of Union City, and Joseph Ferriero, a Democratic power broker in Bergen County twice convicted on corruption charges.

Prosecutors said in the indictment that Mr. Daibes believed Mr. Menendez’s pick “would likely be sympathetic to him” if she were confirmed as U.S. attorney. They did not explain why or suggest that Mr. Menendez ever discussed the Daibes case with Ms. Suarez, leaving other Democrats to speculate.

“Esther was known as a political operative who was also a lawyer,” said Loretta Weinberg, who served as majority leader of the State Senate and has clashed with Ms. Suarez. She said Mr. Menendez “would have known that she was, is and would be a friendly person.”

Ms. Suarez declined to comment but asked a longtime friend to vouch for her ethics. “She is not wired for corruption,” said the friend, Charles Sciarra, a criminal defense lawyer. “This is not someone who plays that game.”

Ms. Suarez did have public baggage. The indictment notes that in the spring of 2021, she was the subject of critical news reports after her name was floated as a potential candidate. Articles published by The Star-Ledger focused on her role in a 2017 decision by the Hudson County prosecutor’s office not to bring charges after Katie Brennan, a volunteer for Philip D. Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign, accused a campaign official of sexual assault.

Prosecutors said in the indictment that Mr. Daibes believed Ms. Suarez “would likely be sympathetic to him” if she were confirmed as U.S. attorney.USA Today Network, via Reuters

The case blew into a political scandal in 2018. In early 2021, Ms. Brennan and her lawyer wrote letters to Mr. Menendez, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and the White House, urging them to oppose Ms. Suarez’s nomination.

Ms. Suarez struggled through her first interview with White House and Justice Department officials. Mr. Menendez’s office said he never “insisted” that Ms. Suarez receive a second interview, but acknowledged that he did request one because Ms. Suarez wanted to “clarify some issues from her initial interview.”

It did little to help her case; the Biden administration informed Mr. Menendez that it would not nominate Ms. Suarez. Mr. Menendez soon turned back to Mr. Sellinger.

This time, an unnamed adviser to Mr. Menendez spoke with Mr. Sellinger and came away with the impression that he might not have to be recused in the Daibes case, according to the indictment.

The indictment does not describe what Mr. Sellinger said to the adviser. But it says the adviser texted Mr. Menendez in May 2021 that if he called Mr. Sellinger, “you’ll be comfortable with what he says.”

With Mr. Menendez’s recommendation, the White House nominated Mr. Sellinger, and he was confirmed and sworn in that December. But the Justice Department, after reviewing the matter, said he would have to recuse himself from the Daibes case, the indictments say.

Mr. Sellinger has not been accused of wrongdoing. His spokesman has said that the case was “handled appropriately” and declined further comment.

Mr. Menendez evidently continued to try to help Mr. Daibes.

In January 2022, the senator asked for the name of a deputy of Mr. Sellinger’s who was now supervising the Daibes prosecution. The indictment says Mr. Menendez later called the deputy twice, though it does not detail what was said.

The senator and Mr. Daibes also called Mr. Daibes’s lawyer to complain that the lawyer had not been aggressive enough in trying to get the case dismissed.

And in March, Mr. Menendez told his adviser he was frustrated with the way Mr. Sellinger’s office was handling the case, the indictment says. He asked the adviser to tell Mr. Sellinger over lunch to give Mr. Daibes “all due process,” even though the senator knew Mr. Sellinger was recused. The adviser did not relay the message.

Mr. Daibes’s case appeared to be resolved that April, when he pleaded guilty to making false entries on a loan document — part of an agreement that called for no prison time.

Cash and gold bars were recovered from the Menendezes’ residence.Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

His lawyer, Lawrence S. Lustberg, said that the deal was the result of “extended, very hard fought and good-faith negotiations between me and the U.S. attorney’s office.”

But this month, a federal judge in New Jersey rejected that agreement, leading Mr. Daibes to withdraw his guilty plea. That case is now pending.

The senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, were rewarded for all their effort, prosecutors say. In late January 2022, Ms. Menendez exchanged two brief calls with Mr. Daibes’s driver. She then texted Mr. Daibes: “Thank you. Christmas in January.”

The driver’s fingerprints were later found on an envelope holding thousands of dollars of cash that was recovered from the Menendezes’ residence. The envelope also bore Mr. Daibes’s return address and DNA, the indictment says.

Then, in March, Ms. Menendez met Mr. Daibes for lunch, and a day later, Ms. Menendez gave a jeweler two one-kilogram gold bars, asking that they be sold. Prosecutors say each bar was marked with a serial number indicating it had belonged to Mr. Daibes.

Ms. Menendez was delighted. “THANK YOU Fred,” she texted him after the lunch, adding, “🙏❌⭕️❤️.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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