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How Nadine Arslanian went from relative obscurity to the center of Bob Menendez's political corruption scandal

Michelle Mark,Katherine Long   

How Nadine Arslanian went from relative obscurity to the center of Bob Menendez's political corruption scandal

How Nadine Arslanian went from relative obscurity to the center of Bob Menendez's political corruption scandal

In late 2018, around the time Nadine Arslanian fell in love with the "very, very hot" US senator she met at a New Jersey IHOP, she found herself in need of a new car.

Her previous vehicle was wrecked when she hit Richard Koop, a 49-year-old father, killing him almost instantly on a darkened Bogota, New Jersey street. Koop "jumped onto the hood of the car," she told police at the scene, before they let her go.

After the crash, she complained in text messages about not having a car to drive. Some time later, she sent photos from a car dealership to Robert Menendez, the senator she would soon marry, to ask which color he preferred. In April 2019, a replacement vehicle finally arrived: a black $60,000 Mercedes-Benz C-300 convertible.

"Congratulations mon amour de la vie, we are the proud owners of a 2019 Mercedes," Arslanian texted Menendez, with a heart emoji, after the purchase cleared.

The tall, striking blonde has often been photographed with a variety of minor celebrities, reality TV stars, and New Jersey socialites. Now, she has brought a bizarre and glamorous twist to a political scandal that has roiled the Democratic Party and helped place Menendez's decadeslong political career in the crosshairs yet again.

Federal prosecutors have charged Arslanian and her husband, along with three businessmen, with bribery. They allege that Arslanian and Menendez received the car, cash, gold bars, payments toward Arslanian's mortgage, and home furnishings as part of a brazen scheme to profit off Menendez's power and influence as a senator. On Oct. 12, prosecutors filed a new charge against the pair, alleging that they conspired to have Menendez act as a foreign agent in connection with the bribery scandal.

Prosecutors in New Jersey are also investigating how local police handled the 2018 collision, the existence of which was only publicly reported last week. Dashcam video revealed that officers treated Arslanian delicately at the scene.

Menendez, of course, is no stranger to criminal allegations. He was investigated by Chris Christie, then the US Attorney for New Jersey, in 2006; a decade later, the longtime Garden State senator was indicted on federal corruption charges. The case ended in a mistrial in 2017.

But Arslanian is newer to the spotlight. The pair have only been married since 2020, and live in Arslanian's split-ranch home in Englewood Cliffs — the smallest house on the block. Neighbors told Insider they rarely see the couple. A New Jersey woman who said she had been friends with Arslanian for over a decade described her as a "normal person" whose life "changed dramatically" after she married the senator.

Still, even prior to Menendez and federal indictment, Arslanian brushed up against fame and scandal. She dated Doug Anton, a criminal defense attorney whose clients have included Real Housewives of New Jersey star Kim DePaola and R. Kelly.

Arslanian "liked nice things," Anton told Insider. "I probably spent $300,000 or $400,000 on her while we were together — trips, bags, shoes. Every bag you see her with is mine, and I might try to get some of them back from the US Attorney if they seized any of them."

Now, a highly public federal indictment and the possibility of up to 45 years in prison have transformed Arslanian from a relatively unknown senator's wife into a colorful entry in the annals of American political corruption.

Lawyers for both did not respond to comment. Arslanian and Menendez have pleaded not guilty, and the next court date is scheduled for Oct. 24.

Arslanian immigrated to the US as a child, and surrounded herself with socialites and celebrities as an adult

Arslanian was born Nadine Tabourian in Beirut, Lebanon, to Armenian parents who brought her to the United States when she was a child. She attended New York University for undergraduate and graduate school, receiving a masters in French language and civilization in 1991, according to a spokesperson for the school. She married real estate developer Raffi Arslanian in 1989 and had two children, Sabine and André, before the couple divorced in 2005.

The end of her marriage left her financially precarious. Around the time of their divorce, a real estate development bond issuer sued the couple for nearly $54,000 for "damages that have been suffered" by the company after working with the couple.

She took her ex-husband to court twice, in 2005 and 2013, receiving more than $25,000 in child support, records show. (When reached by phone, Raffi Arslanian declined to comment.)

Arslanian's family court attorneys sued her for $6,000 in unpaid bills in 2011, and an orthopedist's office sued her the following year for a $600 medical bill.

There were other signs of tumult. Arslanian was arrested for entering a home on Christmas Day in 2010 to confront someone she had been court-ordered not to contact. According to court records, she yelled and threw a photo album at the person.

Arslanian "does whatever she wants, whenever she wants," said the person, who asked not to be named. "She usually tries to find someone to help pick up the pieces."

The person felt Arslanian behaved as if the law "does not apply to her."

"I'm a big believer in karma," they added.

Arslanian's professional life is also murky. Though her wedding announcement described her as an "international businesswoman," it's unclear what business affiliations she had prior to her marriage to Menendez. Last month's indictment described her as "unemployed," and friends told The New York Times in August she never worked outside the home while she raised her two children. She briefly worked as a hostess at a New Jersey seafood restaurant in 2017, according to her ex-boyfriend Anton.

Arslanian has been seen among Bergen County's high society, lunching with other "fashionable ladies" and attending parties with cast members from "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" and "Mob Wives." (When reached by phone, multiple women who had been photographed with Arslanian hung up when Insider asked about those relationships.)

Arslanian was often photographed at events wearing colorful dresses, bedecked in jewelry, her platinum-blonde hair in loose curls. The longtime friend, who asked not to be identified by name, told Insider that Arslanian was conscious of her looks.

"She's a very good dresser. She always put herself together very well," the friend said.

Arslanian developed a reputation as a socialite, but the friend told Insider her partying was largely due to the influence of Anton. "He's really into looking for celebrities, wanting to represent celebrities," the friend said.

Anton met Arslanian in 2011, he told Insider. They grew close and dated for several years. He has also represented her pro bono in various legal scrapes, including a tangle with an ex-boyfriend, the 2013 child support suit against her ex-husband, and three traffic ticket and parking violations, according to court records and Anton's retellings.

In the years before she struck and killed Koop, Arslanian racked up six tickets, including for using a phone while driving, ignoring traffic signs, and failing to maintain her headlamps. She was ticketed again for using her phone while driving in 2021, and paid a $240 fine.

Arslanian and Anton's relationship foundered in early 2018. They disagreed on getting married, he said — she wanted to; he didn't. They continued to see each other through that year, even as her relationship with Menendez grew serious.

"I'm sure she enjoyed being on Menendez's arm," Anton said. "Taking her to this event, that event, meeting Bono, state dinners, meeting the president. She liked it, of course, who wouldn't like it?"

Arslanian fell in love with an IHOP 'fanatic' who also happened to be a US senator

The timing of Arslanian and Menendez's introduction is hazy. One New York Times piece noted that it happened in December of 2018, while the federal indictment said they began dating in February of 2018. A local write-up of the couple's 2020 wedding said they met in 2010, but didn't date for another eight years, a timeline roughly echoed by Anton. The two were appearing together in public by March 2018, according to photographs published in a Bergen County society magazine.

One detail about their introduction remains consistent: The couple met at the IHOP in Union City, and were brought together by the owner. (Menendez is an avowed "fanatic" of the pancake chain.)

Arslanian claimed she had no idea Menendez was a senator when they first met. "He was very intelligent and had a great sense of humor, and he was very, very hot," she opined.

Their relationship moved quickly — Menendez popped the question in October 2019 in front of the Taj Mahal. A YouTube video posted by an account called "Robert&Nadine" shows Menendez cradling Arslanian on a public bench while singing "Never Enough" from the film "The Greatest Showman."

The couple wed in 2020 at an outdoor ceremony in Queens. Menendez's financial disclosure forms reveal they received $13,000 in gifts and cash, including from two Menendez associates who testified in his defense in his prior corruption trial.

Arslanian's schedule quickly filled up after marrying Menendez, her friend told Insider, and regular weekly lunches soon became much less frequent.

Menendez moved into Arslanian's Englewood Cliffs home, but they didn't spend much time in New Jersey as they commuted often to Washington, DC, the friend said. Few of the neighbors walking their dogs or strolling past Arslanian's home realized they were living near a US senator and his wife until news of the indictment broke last month.

"I was shocked to learn they were four doors away. We barely see the lights on," one neighbor told Insider. During a recent visit to Arslanian's home, a reporter saw that all the lights were off, and the shades drawn. A lone gray Lincoln sedan sat in the driveway.

"I haven't talked with her for years, and I haven't seen her for years," another neighbor said, referring to Arslanian. "It's a quiet town, a quiet street, and they've been very quiet."

The fatal 2018 crash is now getting a second look from New Jersey authorities

Though they were not yet married, Menendez appeared to be by Arslanian's side in the aftermath of the December 2018 car crash that killed Koop. He came with her to a tow lot to retrieve personal items from the car, according to the New York Times.

A police report reviewed by Insider showed that Arslanian struck and killed Koop in front of his home on Main Street in Bogota. When Bogota officers arrived at the scene, Arslanian told them the victim "ran across the road and jumped onto the hood of the car." The officers did not test Arslanian for drugs or alcohol, though a criminal defense lawyer told the New York Times that that wasn't necessarily uncommon. Officers also allowed her to leave the scene shortly after the incident.

Dashcam video shows Arslanian telling one officer she "didn't do anything wrong." Police later determined she was "not at fault."

The footage shows the officer seemingly appeasing Arslanian, reassuring her she'll be able to leave the scene. "If we can clear you from any wrongdoing, I want to get you home and comfortable and not here anymore," the officer told her. Audio from the footage also captured the voice of a man who described himself as a retired police officer, who said he was there as "a favor" to a friend.

Koop's family has accused authorities of sweeping the incident under the rug and failing to investigate his death.

"We felt that it was a very one-sided investigation," Koop's sister, Rosemarie Koop-Angelicola, told Insider. "There are just so many questions, so many inappropriate actions."

Koop-Angelicola said she's pleased that state prosecutors are re-examining the death of her brother, whom she described as a "down-to-earth, very unpretentious person" who was deeply loved by his family and many friends.

"We should not have to be reliving this now, and to know that Richard's life and death were so disrespected at that time is agonizing to the family," she said. "We accept the fact that accidents truly happen, but only when there's a thorough investigation."

The 2018 crash was briefly alluded to in last month's indictment, which now looms large over the couple's future

Federal investigators are looking into whether Menendez used his power and influence as a senator in exchange for bribes. Among other things, prosecutors say Menendez used his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to increase federal aid to Egypt.

Prosecutors say Arslanian worked with her longtime friend Wael Hana to introduce Menendez to Egyptian officials who sought to benefit from US military sales. Arslanian established a company called Strategic International Business Consultants to accept the payments, according to the indictment. Prosecutors have also charged the pair with conspiring to have Menendez act as a foreign agent.

"Every time I'm a middle person for a deal, I am asking to get paid and this is my consulting company," Arslanian texted a relative, according to the indictment.

Douglas Anton said he occasionally smoked cigars with Hana. He told Insider he had reviewed "contracts" between Arslanian and the Egyptian businessman, though he said they were not for Strategic International Business Consultants. He declined to say more about the contents of the contracts he reviewed, citing attorney-client privilege.

Arslanian, he said, wanted to secure a "finder's fee" for sending business toward Hana. "Not anything that I reviewed in those contracts that I reviewed was illegal or wrongful," Anton added.

Investigators who searched Arslanian and Menendez's Englewood Cliffs home in June 2022 found more than $100,000 worth of gold bars, $70,000 in cash in Arslanian's safe deposit box, and another $480,000 in cash, some of it stuffed into jackets embroidered with Menendez's name. The other alleged bribes included a recliner, two exercise machines, and an air purifier.

They also found the Mercedes convertible parked in the garage. Arslanian bought the car with $15,000 in cash given to her by a former insurance broker, Jose Uribe, who sought to have Menendez intervene on behalf of a former employee under investigation by the state attorney general, prosecutors alleged. Attorneys for Hana and Uribe did not respond to Insider's requests for comment. An attorney for Fred Daibes, a New Jersey developer also charged in the alleged scheme, declined to comment.

The charge filed on Oct. 12 asked a judge to seize both the convertible and the couple's house in Englewood Cliffs, as well as cash, gold bars and an exercise machine.

Douglas Anton, for his part, blames Arslanian's troubles on meeting Menendez.

"Before Bob, Nadine wasn't involved in any of this crap," Anton said. "After Bob, she is."

Additional reporting by Aaron Short.

Update, 10/12/2023: This article has been updated to reflect a new charge filed against Sen. Menendez and Nadine Arslanian.