The New Jersey attorney general’s office has opened an inquiry into how local law enforcement handled an investigation into a fatal car crash that involved the then-future wife of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the review.
Nadine Menendez had been dating the New Jersey Democrat for just under a year when she hit a man with her car on Dec. 12, 2018, in the town of Bogota. Richard Koop, 49, died almost instantly when he was hit while crossing the street in the dark near his home.
Menendez, then known by her maiden name Nadine Arslanian, wasn’t tested for drugs or alcohol at the scene and Bogota police quickly concluded she wasn’t at fault and allowed her to leave the scene.
She told police the man had run across the street in front of her car and she didn’t see him until he hit her windshield. Police said Koop was wearing a dark-colored jacket, wasn’t in a crosswalk, and been drinking at a tavern before the crash.
The deadly collision, though, took on new prominence after Sen. Menendez and his wife were indicted Sept. 22 on charges that they accepted bribes of cash, gold and a luxury car in exchange for a variety of corrupt acts.
The indictment said Nadine Menendez needed that new car because she had wrecked hers in an “accident.” A New Jersey businessman is accused of buying her a $60,000 Mercedes in exchange for the senator trying to influence a criminal case involving one of his employees.
The law enforcement official who confirmed the attorney general’s inquiry into the handling of the 2018 crash was not authorized to speak publicly about the inquiry and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The inquiry was first reported by NBC News.
The office of New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin declined to comment, saying in an email, “The office does not confirm or deny investigations.”
Koop’s family has raised questions about whether his death was fully investigated.
“We understand that true accidents happen,” his sister, Rosemarie Koop-Angelicola, told the AP on Thursday. “We’re willing to accept that, but only with a full and proper investigation. There’s gaping holes in this.”
Security camera video recorded the fatal collision, but from an angle where critical details are obscured. Neither Koop nor Menendez’s vehicle are visible until after the moment of impact.
It shows Menendez stopping for 25 seconds as Koop’s body lies in the street in front of her. Then she backs up, pauses and drives around the body, a short distance down the street and out of the camera’s view. About three minutes after the crash, a man can be seen running to Koop’s side to help. Police arrive about a minute later.
Police dashcam video recorded officers interviewing Menendez about the crash. She declined to give police permission to take possession of her phone.
In an email, Nadine Menendez’s attorney David Schertler said it was a “tragic accident, but Nadine Menendez was not at fault, did not violate any laws, and was therefore not charged with any crimes. The fact of the accident has nothing to do with the allegations in the current indictment against Ms. Menendez. We are confident that any ‘re-opening’ of an investigation into the accident will confirm that conclusion.”
Both the senator and his wife have pleaded not guilty to the bribery charges. A trial is tentatively scheduled to start May 6.
In another sign of ongoing fallout related to the indictment, a federal judge in New Jersey on Thursday tossed out a plea bargain in an unrelated criminal case involving one of the indicted New Jersey businessmen.
Real estate developer Fred Daibes had pleaded guilty in a separate banking fraud case last April. The new indictment accused Daibes of paying cash and gold to Menendez in exchange for the senator’s efforts to install a U.S. attorney who would provide favorable treatment in that case.
A message left with Daibes’ attorney was not returned.