Robert Menendez: how controversy followed leading Senate Democrat

The accuracy of the Daily Caller's sex accusations have been called into question, but they paved the way for closer scrutiny of Menendez

The Daily Caller is not part of the upper crust of American journalism. It is best known for a race-baiting lunge last year to repackage an old Obama speech as a campaign bombshell. Its partisan poison is an elixir to its readers, but it never has earned the public trust.

It's no surprise, then, that a Daily Caller report accusing New Jersey senator Robert Menendez of sleeping with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic should be debunked. Two prostitutes who appeared in a November 2012 Daily Caller video making the accusation now say they were paid to do so, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Unfortunately Menendez, 59, whose parents were Cuban immigrants, has made himself a rather easy target for his enemies. He is currently named in at least three separate cases of potential misconduct on behalf of a single friend and donor. His home-state approval rating has dropped 15 points in less than a month, according to Quinnipiac.

The senator blames partisan hitmen for his current travails, which began just before his re-election last November and his subsequent ascent to the chairmanship of the Senate foreign relations committee, one of the most powerful perches in the legislature. And in fact the charges against him – all of which he vehemently denies – originated from precincts even more shadowy and dank than the Daily Caller.

Last April, a tipster using the pseudonym Peter Williams contacted a government ethics watchdog with the rumor of the senator and the prostitutes and other damning reports about Menendez. The watchdog contacted the FBI. Months later, apparently out of frustration with the pace of the would-be scandal, the rumor-monger rang the Caller, which set up a video interview with the prostitutes, the New York Times reported. The Daily Caller has declined to name its sources.

The video of the prostitutes talking about "Bob" at first failed to gain mainstream attention, so improbable did the charges seem and so untrustworthy was the source. But the controversy opened the way to a wild search for dirt on Menendez.

"It is no coincidence that it was being peddled before the election," Menendez said at an appearance in New Jersey last month. "No coincidence that it gets peddled again as I assume the chairmanship, no coincidence that we have someone who never's willing to meet anyone in the press or otherwise never is willing to speak to anybody on the phone, that uses a pseudonym and never shows their face."

The eye doctor

Menendez has one unusually controversial friendship, with Florida eye surgeon Salomon E Melgen, pictured. The pair vacation together in the Dominican Republic, where Melgen was born. Earlier this year Menendez paid Melgen $58,500 to reimburse him for two trips on his private jet that the senator had neglected to report.

Salomon Melgen
Dr Salomon Melgen. Photograph: Phil Roche/AP Photograph: Phil Roche/AP

Melgen has been repeatedly embroiled in public skirmishes with large dollar figures attached. He is the target of an FBI investigation on charges that his practice over-billed Medicare by $8.9m. He has been the target of at least three IRS liens for unpaid taxes totaling at least $18.6m, the Miami Herald has reported. He claims to have lost $10m in a Ponzi scheme. He sued a former lover to get back $900,000 he had given her.

The cases

Menendez is accused of improperly intervening on behalf of Melgen with various government officials. He denies wrongdoing in all the cases.

• Menendez's staff sent an email to the Department of Homeland Security asking them not to give security equipment to the Dominican Republic. Melgen has a contract to provide security in the country's ports. The free equipment could have threatened Melgen's business. The email, obtained by the New York Times, did not mention Melgen's business interest, however, instead describing a conspiracy to manipulate Customs and Border Protection.

"These elements, possibly criminal, want CBP to give the government equipment because they believe the government use of the equipment will be less effective than the outside contractor," the email said. "My boss is concerned that the CBP equipment will be used for this ulterior motive."

• Menendez contacted two top officials at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services after the government ruled that Melgen owed $8.9m for overbilling for Medicare. The FBI raided Melgen's West Palm Beach offices in January in connection with the case. In July 2009 Menendez called Jonathan Blum, the Medicare director at CMS, to talk about Melgen's case, and in June 2012 Menendez brought the case up at a meeting with CMS acting administrator Marilyn Tavenner, Senate aides told the Washington Post. In both cases Menendez was conducting a general discussion and he never urged specific action, his staff says.

• Menendez sponsored legislation with incentives for natural gas vehicle conversions that would benefit Melgen, the AP reported Tuesday. Melgen was on the board of Gaseous Fuel Systems Corp, whose products convert diesel vehicles to natural gas. The bill, which stalled in committee, gave tax credits and grants to heavy vehicle fleets that converted to alternative fuels.

The political donations

Melgen is a big political donor. Not huge, but he writes checks. Melgen and his family have given more than $426,000 in campaign donations since 1992, including tens of thousands to Menendez, according to the non-profit site Open Secrets. The Melgens gave $60,400 to the Democratic senatorial campaign committee, which Menendez ran, and gave $50,000 to the New Jersey Democratic state committee, Menendez's home-state party machine. The Melgens gave $63,000 to the Democratic national committee, according to Open Secrets. They also have given money to members of Congress from both parties and to Hillary Clinton and President George W Bush.

Menendez has dodged reporters in recent weeks while keeping up a busy official schedule. He spoke Tuesday to Aipac, the pro-Israel lobby, in his first major address as foreign relations chair. "There will never be any daylight between the United States and Israel on my watch," Menendez said. He did not address the accusations against him.


Tom McCarthy

The GuardianTramp

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