Businessman accused of bribing Sen. Bob Menendez had deep ties to Egypt
The Washington Post November 27, 2023
In late 2015, cranes at a seaport in Jacksonville, Fla., carefully hoisted U.S. military helicopters worth up to $40 million each onto a massive cargo ship set to deliver the equipment to the Egyptian government.
Egypt’s Ministry of Defense had turned to an unusual figure to help arrange transport of the prized hardware: Wael Hana, an Egyptian American businessman who had previously run a trucking business, a gas station and a truck stop along a gritty, industrial strip in northern New Jersey.
“I don’t know how he got involved with shipping aid for the Egyptian military,” said Essam Youssef, a former Hana associate who runs a marine transport company in New Jersey and said he helped Hana arrange the November 2015 shipment. “It was strange. The way he was coming to me, he didn’t have a clue about shipping. But it was clear the Egyptian government trusted him.”
Eight years later, Hana’s ties to the Egyptian government are under a bright spotlight.
After a years-long investigation, U.S. authorities charged him in September with paying bribes to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and his wife, Nadine Menendez, in exchange for actions that benefited Egypt, including Menendez’s promise to help keep military aid flowing to the North African nation.
Hana, 40, lavished the couple with gold bars, checks and household furnishings between 2018 and 2022, prosecutors allege, while helping to introduce the senator to Egyptian military and intelligence officers and serving as a go-between for their communications.
A Washington Post examination, based on records and interviews with dozens of people who know or have worked with Hana, found that his connections to the Egyptian government go back further and are more extensive than previously reported. Those connections help explain how Hana was in a position to capitalize on his relationship with Menendez, until recently the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when they met years after the helicopter shipment and forged a bond that prosecutors say quickly became mutually beneficial.
The examination also sheds light on how Hana rose from being a down-on-his-luck entrepreneur in New Jersey to a central figure in an international scandal that has ensnared a powerful U.S. politician and sent shock waves through the diplomatic world.
In the years after the helicopter shipment, Egyptian authorities entrusted Hana with greater responsibility and power, enriching him even as business associates and government officials around the world found the arrangements mysterious.
In 2019, after Hana had begun helping introduce Menendez to Egyptian government officials, Egypt granted a lucrative monopoly to one of the companies Hana had started, suddenly making him a player in international trade.
The firm, IS EG Halal Certified, was given sole responsibility for certifying that halal meat exported to Egypt was processed according to Islamic law, rankling the global beef industry. Prosecutors allege the company was used to funnel bribes to Menendez and his wife.
Egypt later sought to further expand Hana’s monopoly to other imports, creating a massive backlash among foreign diplomats, The Post found.
In addition to the criminal charges, U.S. authorities are examining Hana’s background as part of a counterintelligence probe, according to people familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation and prosecution. Federal investigators are working to understand the precise nature of Hana’s relationship with Egyptian government officials, including intelligence officers, and how far back those relationships may go.
Hana has denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty.
“Wael Hana’s background is a classic immigrant story, having come to the U.S. through the lottery system as a 22-year-old in 2006,” Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney for Hana, said in a statement in response to questions from The Post. “Since then, he has been an entrepreneur who has built several businesses, and he has always acted ethically and legally.”
“Mr. Hana is innocent and has nothing to hide,” Lustberg continued, saying that Hana has cooperated with investigators and had offered to meet with prosecutors before he was charged, an offer that Lustberg said was turned down.
Menendez and his wife also have pleaded not guilty to federal charges that they acted as foreign agents and accepted bribes from Hana and two other New Jersey businessmen.
Egypt’s Embassy and its Ministry of Defense office in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Stumbles, then an ascent
As a young man in Egypt, Hana studied social work at a university and helped out at his family’s farming and wholesale food distribution company, but he aspired to a business career of his own in the United States, a person familiar with his background said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the criminal case.
After his U.S. arrival in 2006, Hana settled initially for a job at a cleaning service, said Andy Aslanian Jr., a lawyer and longtime associate of Hana. He attended two Coptic Orthodox Christian churches in Hudson County, N.J., St. Mark and St. Abanoub & St. Antonious, and boarded in the basement of one of them, Aslanian said.
By 2007, Hana had the means to take out a $450,000 mortgage on a home in Bayonne, N.J., and start a trucking company called Elmanhry, one of a handful of businesses he launched in the ensuing years.
However, five of those ventures — three trucking companies, a limo service, and gas station and truck stop — had folded within a decade, according to incorporation records in New Jersey. Hana and his businesses were facing multiple lawsuits alleging unpaid debts and bad checks, and his home was in foreclosure, as the Record of Bergen County, N.J., previously reported.
Despite that turmoil, Hana’s ties to Egyptian government officials became apparent to Aslanian, who performed legal work for one of Hana’s trucking companies.
In late 2014, the Egyptian Ministry of Defense hired Aslanian to handle a real estate transaction in New Jersey — the purchase of a residential annex for Egyptian diplomats — based solely on Hana’s recommendation, Aslanian said.
Hana made the recommendation to Col. Yasser Hassan, an Egyptian military adviser who was in New York at the time, according to a person familiar with the arrangement. Hassan was working out of Egypt’s consulate in Manhattan and was part of its U.N. delegation, according to a diplomatic directory from that year.
“He had good contacts with the government,” Aslanian said of Hana. “All the way up.”
Aslanian, who traveled to Egypt with Hana, said he believed Hana’s contacts came through his late father, a claim The Post could not verify. Hassan did not respond to a request for comment.
Hana later said in a court filing that he knew Egyptian officials “because I have a large family in Egypt and am active in the Egyptian community through my church.” The filing stemmed from a 2019 FBI raid of his home that — although it was not known publicly at the time — was an early step in the investigation that would eventually result in Menendez’s indictment.
In 2015, a unique opportunity arose for Hana.
The Obama administration had lifted a two-year freeze on military aid to Egypt, agreeing to resume $1.3 billion in annual assistance that included fighter jets, tanks and helicopters. Obama had suspended the aid after the 2013 military coup that overthrew Egypt’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government. He decided to undo the freeze so Egypt could fight extremism in the region, including Islamic State militants in the Sinai Peninsula.
Youssef, the maritime executive in New Jersey, said Hana contacted him that year to ask for help coordinating the shipment of military equipment on behalf of Egypt’s Ministry of Defense. He said it was clear to him that Hana had little experience and few contacts in shipping.
Youssef said he agreed to help Hana on the condition that they split any commission from the shipment.
Youssef traveled multiple times with Hana to meetings at Egypt’s Ministry of Defense office in Washington to discuss the transport; he helped Hana seek proposals from shipping companies; and he negotiated the contract for the November 2015 transfer, he said.
He and Hana went to Jacksonville’s port, Youssef said, and watched three 10,000-pound U.S. military helicopters, valued at $35 million to $40 million each, being loaded onto a cargo ship named Ocean Freedom on the day before it embarked for the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Egypt. The shipment also included 10 ambulances. Many details of the shipment are contained in a news release issued at the time by JaxPort, Jacksonville’s port authority.
After the deal was done, Youssef said, he found it hard to reach Hana or to collect his commission. “I never saw a penny,” he said. Youssef said he did not sue, in part, because they had not formalized the agreement in writing.
Hana’s attorney did not address specific questions about the shipment.
It’s not clear if Hana continued to arrange military shipments for Egypt. He wrote in the 2020 court filing seeking to get his property back after the FBI raid that one of his companies, Loundes Express Group, “takes bid requests ... to ship goods and materials into Egypt on behalf of the government.” He provided no other details.
He incorporated Loundes Express Group in September 2015, a month before the helicopter shipment, state corporate records show. The company is still active.
Aslanian, who was initially listed as a member of the firm, said he believes that Hana also coordinated a shipment of U.S. military tank parts at some point, but he said he could not recall the details. The departments of Defense and State, which both have roles in overseeing foreign military sales, declined to comment.
Around the time that Hana arranged the helicopter shipment, people in Hana’s middle-class neighborhood in Bayonne, N.J., noticed signs of his apparent ascent.
Hana, who largely kept to himself, was seen pulling up to his home in a Bentley, said one neighbor who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy. “It really stuck out in this neighborhood,” said the neighbor, who recalled approaching Hana to inquire what he did for work.
“I work for the Egyptian government,” Hana replied, according to the neighbor.
In a statement, Hana’s attorney said neither Hana nor any of his immediate family members had ever been “employees of the Egyptian government.”
A puzzling monopoly
Around the time of the helicopter shipment Hana struck up a friendship with Menendez’s future wife, then named Nadine Arslanian. Aslanian, the lawyer, said he introduced Hana and Arslanian at a Mexican restaurant in 2014 or 2015.
In early 2018, according to the federal indictment, Arslanian and Menendez began dating. They had met in an International House of Pancakes restaurant in Union City, N.J. She has said they were introduced by the owner. They married in October 2020.
Only months into the relationship, Arslanian and Hana worked to introduce the senator to Egyptian intelligence and military officials at a series of private meetings, prosecutors allege.
At these meetings, Egyptian officials relayed their requests for foreign military sales and financing, and the Menendezes promised to use the senator’s power to help keep the aid flowing, according to the indictment.
As part of the “corrupt arrangement,” prosecutors said, Hana also agreed to give Menendez’s future wife a “low-or-no-show job” at a halal certification company that was not yet operational in 2018.
That company got a sudden windfall the following year, when the Egyptian government announced that Hana’s New Jersey-based IS EG would get the monopoly certifying halal meat exported to Egypt from the United States and countries in South America. Hana, a Christian, had no prior experience in the industry, he acknowledged in the court filing after the 2019 FBI raid.
An investigation by independent Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr in 2019 found that Hana’s halal company was working closely with Medi Trade, an Egyptian company linked to high-level Egyptian security institutions. The story noted that Hana had created a firm with the same name in New Jersey.
Egyptian authorities did not explain their reasoning behind the decision to grant the monopoly. It set off pushback inside the U.S. government and among diplomats across the globe, who worried it would stifle trade and drive up prices for exporters, as well as for consumers in Egypt, according to interviews.
Prosecutors allege that the halal company provided a revenue stream that allowed Hana to “make good on the bribe payments.” In July 2019, the company paid $23,000 to head off the foreclosure of Arslanian’s Englewood Cliffs home and bring the mortgage current, according to federal charges. It also issued $30,000 in checks to her newly created consulting firm, Strategic International Business Consultants, between August and November 2019, the final check coming only weeks before the FBI raid on Hana’s home, according to the indictment.
IS EG, meanwhile, continued to expand, setting up offices in other countries, including in Montevideo, Uruguay, and São Paulo, Brazil, by late 2019.
Ahmed Ibrahim, who worked out of the company’s São Paulo office certifying chicken meat for IS EG from 2020 to 2022, said his supervisor was not forthcoming about who controlled the company.
“The boss kept on saying that the company belongs to the ‘sovereign entity in Egypt,’ ” he recalled. That term is generally used in Egypt to describe an entity controlled by the military or intelligence service.
“No one is supposed to ask about it,” he said his supervisor warned.
Lustberg, Hana’s attorney, disputed that.
“It is a well-documented and indisputable fact that IS EG Halal Certified, Inc. is a New Jersey corporation solely owned by Mr. Hana and wholly unaffiliated with the Egyptian Government,” he said in a statement.
In 2021, Egypt moved to expand the company’s monopoly beyond meat, to all imported halal food and beverages, including dairy products. The decision confounded other countries.
A Sept. 6, 2021, a cable from Brazil’s Embassy in Cairo captured that puzzlement and the resulting suspicion. The cable, obtained by The Post, reported that New Zealand’s ambassador in Cairo had expressed concern to his Brazilian counterparts about IS EG’s monopoly, in part, because his contacts within the Egyptian government were treating the issue like a state secret.
The topic, the cable reads, “is treated as taboo” within the Egyptian government because “a superior decision cannot be criticized.”
European officials summoned representatives of the Egyptian government and IS EG to a meeting in Cairo on Oct. 13, 2021, in another effort to get answers, documents show. The meeting illustrated the close working relationship between Hana’s company and the Egyptian government.
Hana, who remained mostly quiet during the meeting, was accompanied by a clutch of Egyptian government officials, according to two diplomats who attended the meeting.
Among them was Ahmed Abdelkarim, a senior official in Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, according to a readout provided to attendees and obtained by The Post. Another was Hussein Mansour, who was then chairman of Egypt’s national food safety authority.
Mansour told The Post that he was there as a board member of a government-owned company in Egypt called ISEGHALAL, a firm with an almost identical name to Hana’s company. The company, authorized by Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly in January 2020, was created to oversee halal certification for imported foreign products, according to a prime ministerial decree.
Lustberg, Hana’s attorney, said the two companies “are, despite the similarity of their names, entirely separate companies with different owners and different corporate structures.” Hana’s company, he said, certifies halal products in exporting countries, while the government-owned company certifies the halal products after they arrive in Egypt.
Mansour said he was not aware of any alleged bribery. “If these things are happening now, I am not aware of them and they do not concern me,” he said.
Abdelkarim did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did a spokesman for Madbouly.
Unsatisfied by the answers at the October 2021 meeting, diplomats from the United States, Europe, Australia and three South American countries repeatedly lodged their concerns in committee meetings at the World Trade Organization over the next two years, according to a review of public meeting minutes. At one such discussion in November 2021, a U.S. official said certification fees for halal meat exported to Egypt from the United States had gone up by 1,000 percent since the Egyptian government had given the Hana-owned IS EG a monopoly.
Diplomats began to whisper that the arrangement had the makings of a front for Egyptian intelligence.
“It would have been impossible to carry out such an operation, changing the whole system in an inefficient manner, without it being part of the security system in Egypt or being protected by it,” a Western diplomat told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The pressure from other countries prompted Egypt to repeatedly postpone the planned expansion of the monopoly to non-beef products — even to this day.
But Hana’s influence appeared to grow in other ways.
This spring, he showed up at the Brazilian Embassy in Cairo, wearing a business suit and a large gold ring, according to two Brazilian officials who discussed the meeting on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In a meeting with Brazilian diplomats to discuss increasing beef importations from the South American country, he boasted of powers that went far beyond that of a traditional businessman, the Brazilian officials said.
“He spoke in an arrogant way,” one of the officials recalled. “He said if an Egyptian inspector was in the way, he’d solve it. If a health authority is blocking some process, he’d unblock it.”
Hana told the diplomats he was helping an additional Brazilian slaughterhouse export to Egypt. He needed authorization from Egyptian sanitation officials. To facilitate the process, he asked the Brazilian diplomats if they could submit a formal request.
The Brazilians declined — they told The Post that Hana made them uneasy. But weeks later, word got back to them: The Egyptian authorities had nonetheless approved the new Brazilian slaughterhouse for exportation to Egypt — without the Brazilian Embassy ever having made a request.
“It was clear that Hana had access to the [Egyptian government] — and had succeeded,” said one of the diplomats.
Samantha Schmidt and Devlin Barrett contributed reporting.