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NEW YORK (AP) — In late 2020, Sen. Bob Menendez met with Philip Sellinger, a private practice lawyer and former fundraiser for the senator, to assess his potential fit as the next U.S. attorney for the state of New Jersey — and to discuss one case in particular.
If appointed, Sellinger would assume control of one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the country, a post that comes with the power to bust mob bosses and go after corrupt public officials.
But Menendez, federal prosecutors say, was fixated on a less consequential matter: ensuring the future prosecutor would act sympathetically toward a friend of his facing bank fraud charges, real estate developer Fred Daibes.
Daibes is now a key figure in a sweeping bribery case brought against Menendez, his wife and multiple other associates. It accuses Menendez and his wife of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cash, gold bars and a luxury car in exchange for a range of favors, including secretly aiding the government of Egypt on U.S. policy matters and interfering in three criminal investigations, including the one involving Daibes.
The indictment unsealed Friday by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan said Daibes paid bribes, including envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash and gold bars worth more than $120,000.
Menendez has denied wrongdoing, blaming the prosecution on “forces behind the scenes” who “cannot accept that a first-generation Latino American from humble beginnings could rise to be a U.S. Senator.” An attorney for Daibes, Tim Donohue, said he was confident his client would be “completely exonerated of all charges.”
Daibes and Menendez both rose to prominence as power players in the same stretch of urban communities across the Hudson River from Manhattan, where local politics and real estate have long involved favor-trading.
In his home base of Edgewater, New Jersey, just up the river from Union City, where Menendez was once mayor, Daibes is widely credited with building out a “gold coast” of luxury high rises along the formerly industrial waterfront.
That achievement may have been helped by Daibes’ cozy relationship with a number of Edgewater officials, who turned away rival developers from the community and approved his lucrative deals, according to lawsuits and a recent report by the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation.
That report found Daibes rented a discounted apartment to Edgewater’s mayor and provided several million dollars in revenue to a local councilman’s business, while accruing development rights and reneging on promises to build affordable housing.
It said people who opposed Daibes faced reprisals. Edgewater’s previous mayor, James Delaney, testified that his political support evaporated when he complained about what he believed was a corrupt agreement between local officials and Daibes. He ultimately didn’t run for reelection.
“This report is a cautionary tale concerning the inherent dangers of enabling an influential, politically-connected and unelected private citizen to hold outsized power in government concerns,” the commission wrote.
Delaney’s former wife, Bridget Delaney, who had spent 15 years working for Daibes at his restaurant, said the couple were effectively run out of Edgewater, ruining their lives.
“There’s fraud all over that town,” she told The Associated Press on Friday. “When he’s in jail, maybe that will provide some relief.”
In 2018, Daibes was charged by federal prosecutors in Newark with obtaining loans under false pretenses from a bank that he owned. The charges were serious, carrying the potential for years in prison.
Daibes was still awaiting trial in 2021 when Menendez, as New Jersey’s senior senator, played a key role in advising the new administration of President Joe Biden on potential candidates to be the top federal prosecutor in the state.