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Donors to Dem senator's legal defense linked to ex-terror group

Donors to Dem senator's legal defense linked to ex-terror group

Sen. Robert Menendez is fighting charges of illegal ties to foreign governments with help from people associated with the MEK, a controversial Iranian exile group.

Reporting | Washington Politics

Published in partnership with The Intercept.

Sen. Robert Mendendez (D-N.J.) is fighting charges that he accepted money in exchange for assisting foreign governments. That legal defense is being paid in part by donors with links to a former terrorist organization, a sign of the senator’s need for fast cash.

In September, federal prosecutors hit Menendez and his wife with a raft of bribery charges and, more recently, obstruction of justice. (Menendez and his wife pleaded not guilty to the charges.) With a trial scheduled for May, Menendez stands to rack up staggering legal fees. His legal defense fund, according to public disclosures, had already spent $373,223 as of the end of January.

Much of the cash in the fund — he has raised over $400,000 — comes from sources one might anticipate. New Jersey and New York donors with various business and political interests in his home state, including the real estate firm led by Jared Kushner’s family, have given the fund money. There are, however, many lesser-known donors. One is Ahmad Moeinimanesh, an electronic engineer from Northern California. Another is Hossein Afshari, also from California.

At first blush, these smaller contributions to Menendez Legal Defense Fund might appear to come from a smattering of individual donors. An analysis of the donor rolls by Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept, however, shows that about 15 percent of the people who gave to Menendez — including Moeinimanesh and Afshari — are linked to an Iranian exile group called the Mojahedin e-Khalq, or MEK.

Menendez and the MEK have a relationship going back a decade. Shortly after the group was removed from a State Department list of “foreign terror organizations,” Menendez advocated for the MEK following an attack on its members by the Iraqi government.

Menendez’s elevation of the group as a viable alternative to the Islamic Republic continued since then. The senator met with its leader, Maryam Rajavi, last May and heaped praise on the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a so-called political wing indistinguishable from the MEK, at a 2022 Capitol Hill event organized by the Organization of Iranian American Communities, a group allied with the MEK.

“Let me start off by thanking the Organization of Iranian Communities for putting together today’s event on Capitol Hill,” said Menendez. “I’m thrilled to see so many Iranian Americans from across the country, and I’d like to thank and recognize the National Council of Resistance of Iran for their commitment to elevating your voices, the voices of Iranians inside of Iran and constantly advocating for the freedom of the Iranian people.”

Moeinimanesh, the chair of OIAC’s California chapter, who contributed $2,500, was one of a dozen Iranian Americans with links to the MEK or its affiliates that gave to Menendez’s fund. (Neither Moeinimanesh nor OIAC responded to a request for comment.) Afshari gave $1,000. “Giving money to people I think are nice is not illegal,” Afshari told Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept, of his contributions to Menendez’s legal fund. “He is a man with principle and integrity and I don't believe all of the negative things some media put out.”

In total, MEK-affiliated individuals made up approximately 5 percent of the total funds raised, over $20,000, by the end of January. (Seven other donors, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the OIAC, and Menendez’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept established links between the MEK and most of these donors by cross-referencing their names with signatories on OIAC and National Council of Resistance of Iran letters and affiliations. Court records linked Afshari to the MEK.

Menendez and the MEK

Menendez’s perch atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made him one of the most influential Democrats on foreign policy. He was an attractive friend for Egypt, one of the two foreign governments now accused of bribing him for political favors. The dramatic federal indictment claimed cash, gold, and expensive gifts from Egypt were linked to a weapons sale and the release of a hold on $300 million in aid to Cairo. An updated indictment in January alleged that Menendez also accepted Formula One tickets and other gifts from Qatar in exchange for favors.

The sway Menendez held in Washington — and his hawkish stances on Iran — also made him a valuable ally for the MEK. The group had made an arduous journey from its early days as a student-run radical Marxist group in the late 1960s. Anti-monarchists, the MEK fought on the winning side of the 1979 Iranian Revolution but faced a crackdown as the young Islamic Republic consolidated power. Forced into exile, the MEK fought on the Iraqi side of the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, giving rise to antipathy against the group inside its home country.

The exile in Iraq also brought an inward turn, leading the Rand Corporation to conclude that the MEK, due to its aggrandizement of its late-leader Massoud Rajavi and his wife, Maryam, was a “cult.” Human Rights Watch, Rand, and The Intercept have reported that MEK leaders abused group members’ human rights.

In 1997, the MEK was placed on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations for, among other things, its role in the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted attack on the Iranian mission to the United Nations in 1992. The designation would last for a decade and a half. Following a successful lobbying campaign by its supporters in the U.S., the group won a major victory when it was removed from the American terror rolls in 2012.

The shift in the U.S. stance meant American politicians, including Menendez, could grow close to the militant outfit without controversy about the terror label. Prominent figures were more regularly seen speaking at the group’s annual conference outside Paris, casting the MEK and Maryam Rajavi as a viable political force within Iran if the Islamic Republic were overthrown. The appearances were often well remunerated; former Vice President Mike Pence, for example, received $430,000 from the MEK following the end of the Trump administration.

Though he had been quiet on the MEK while it was designated as a terror organization, once it was delisted Menendez consistently expressed concern for the group and its members. In 2013, the MEK began a frantic lobbying push in Washington after its encampment in Iraq — the former base from which it mounted military attacks — came under attack from Iranian-backed groups; the Iraqi government, which was close to Iran, was unwilling or unable to guarantee MEK members’ security.

Menendez, a top recipient of campaign contributions from donors with ties to the MEK, stepped in. A month after the attack, he held up a sale of Apache helicopters to Iraq that were meant to be part of efforts to push back the Islamic State group. Speaking at a 2014 MEK rally in Paris, Menendez said, “I told Prime Minister Maliki” — Nouri al-Maliki, of Iraq — “in person last year that his commitment to the safety and security of the MEK members at Camp Liberty is a critical factor in my future support for any assistance to Iraq.”

Menendez has continued to address MEK convenings and speaks about the group in terms hinting at accepting its self-image as a government-in-exile. And he is quick to point out that he is a friend to the MEK. In avideo message to the OIAC in 2021, Menendez wished the group a happy Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and reiterated his support for their work. “You know, that you have friends in Congress and throughout the U.S. government, as well as a host of international NGOs who will continue to shine a light on these abuses” — by the Iranian government — “and continue to press for accountability,” Menendez said. “We will continue highlighting the plight of Iran’s people at the regime’s expense.”

Now, Menendez also appears to have friends among the MEK who are willing to help him with his plight — at their own expense.

Sen. Robert Menendez, April 2014. Editorial credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

Reporting | Washington Politics
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