(Bloomberg) -- A New Jersey businessman pleaded not guilty to charges that he bribed US Senator Robert Menendez in exchange for pressuring federal agriculture officials to support a monopoly he had on halal meat exports to Egypt.
Wael Hana, who was arrested Tuesday at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport after voluntarily returning to the US from his home in Egypt to face the charges, later entered the plea in federal court in Manhattan. He is charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and conspiracy to commit honest services fraud. The US and the defense agreed to a bail package under which Hana would be released on a $5 million personal recognizance bond.
“Mr. Hana has pleaded not guilty because he is not guilty,” his attorney, Lawrence Lustberg, told reporters outside court. “We will put on a robust defense and one we’re very optimistic about.”
Hana, 40, was one of three businessmen charged with bribing the Democratic senator and his wife, Nadine Menendez, with about a half a million dollars cash, gold bars and other perks including a Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible to protect their interests and benefit Egypt. The Menendezes, who were charged in the case, are scheduled to appear in court Wednesday to enter their pleas. The senator has denied wrongdoing.
Read More: Senator Menendez Charged With Taking Bribes of Gold Bars, Cash
Prosecutors said Hana is a longtime friend of Nadine Menendez who worked with her to introduce Egyptian officials to the senator shortly after she began dating him in 2018. They say that helped to establish a corrupt scheme in which Hana provided bribes to the couple so that Robert Menendez would take actions to benefit him and Egypt.
Hana has known Nadine Menendez for “many, many, many years” before she met her husband, which will likely be a part of his defense, Lustberg said.
The US alleges that the senator provided confidential government information to Egyptian officials and took steps to aid Cairo in exchange for payments from Hana. Prosecutors allege he provided details such as the number and nationality of staff at the US Embassy in Cairo and ghostwrote a letter on behalf of Egypt to other senators urging the release of $300 million in aid.
They also claim the senator agreed to remove holds on military financing and sales of equipment to Egypt, in his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The US said Hana’s IS EG Halal Certified Inc. was granted a monopoly in 2019 on the certification of US meats as halal for export to Egypt even though he had no experience with the process. The US Agriculture Department had contacted Egypt that year seeking to reconsider the grant since the monopoly led to increased costs for US meat suppliers.
Prosecutors said the senator pressured a department official to stop opposing the rights. While the official didn’t agree to his demands, the company kept the monopoly.
In exchange, the US alleges, Hana directed the company to pay $23,000 to bring Nadine Menendez’s mortgage current after her lender initiated foreclosure proceedings in July 2019, and forced it to issue $30,000 in checks to her for a “low-or-no-show job.”
“It remains to be seen whether that business will survive, but he will certainly try,” Lustberg said of Hana’s business.
The case is US v. Menendez, 23-cr-490, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
--With assistance from David Voreacos.
(Updates with comment from defense attorney starting in third paragraph.)
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