NYT IS SURE THAT REPUBS MADE MENENDEZ SCREW THOSE HOOKERS
Inquiry on Democratic Senator Started With a Partisan Push
By ERIC LIPTON
Published: February 16, 2013
FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Sandwiched between two doctors’ offices at a roadside plaza here is the headquarters of a small team of veteran Republican investigators, operating almost as a private detective squad, who since late last year have had a determined goal: bringing down Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey.
“We’ve never sent a Democrat to jail,” said Ken Boehm, the chairman of the group, the National Legal and Policy Center, as he looked up from a table filled with his Menendez files and engaged in what was to him a bit of wishful thinking.
To Mr. Menendez and his staff, the work going on at this suburban Washington office suite, paid for by donations from prominent Republicans nationwide, is proof that the news media frenzy focusing on his actions to help a Florida eye doctor is at least in part a political smear.
But the results have been troubling revelations. Those documented by The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers involve serious accusations of favoritism by the senator.
In recent weeks, Mr. Menendez has acknowledged intervening with at least four federal agencies — including the Departments of State and Health and Human Services — in ways that stood to benefit his friend and campaign contributor Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, who is under investigation by federal authorities for possible Medicare fraud.
But the way Mr. Menendez first came under broader scrutiny, at a minimum, illustrates the often-hidden role that partisan players have in helping push the major news media to dig into ethical allegations lodged against sitting members of Congress.
The inquiry began with an incendiary tip — unproven and vehemently disputed by Mr. Menendez — that Dr. Melgen had helped procure prostitutes, some of them underage, for Mr. Menendez, after flying the senator repeatedly on his private plane to the Dominican Republic, where Dr. Melgen has a home at a seaside resort. This information was put forward by an odd array of self-interested characters, including the right-leaning Web site The Daily Caller and someone — his identity remains a mystery — who claimed to be an American citizen who frequented the Dominican Republic.
The combination of allegations, of misuse of public office and of sexual misconduct, helped propel the story into the headlines and onto television, and set tongues to wagging at cocktail parties across Washington.
Mr. Menendez, who just won his second Senate term and just took over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, making him one of Washington’s most important foreign-policy players, sees evidence of a conspiracy.
“It is no coincidence that it was being peddled before the election,” Mr. Menendez, who has declined requests by The Times for an interview, said during an appearance in New Jersey on Feb. 9. “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 background story of how the accusations were initially made has all the makings of a Hollywood political thriller, even snaring the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the process. It began in April, when an unsolicited e-mail was sent to a left-leaning group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which in a way is the liberal counterpart to Mr. Boehm’s group.
“My duty as a U.S. citizen obligates me to report what I consider to be a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow,” said the first sentence of the e-mail, sent by a person who identified himself as Peter Williams. The e-mail, and others that followed, then went on to detail claims related to Mr. Menendez and the underage prostitutes, as well as decadent outings on a yacht.
But there was something immediately suspicious about Mr. Williams, said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who is now executive director of Citizens for Responsibility, which is based in Washington. Mr. Williams provided some accurate details about Dr. Melgen’s life in the Dominican Republic, but would not agree to speak by phone, and he also said he had been aware of Mr. Menendez’s activities since 2008 — but was only now coming forward. That, Ms. Sloan observed, was seven months before Mr. Menendez faced re-election.
Pete Williams is the nickname of former Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr., Democrat of New Jersey; in 1983, he became the first senator jailed in 80 years, for his role in the so-called Abscam case, in which agents posing as Arab sheiks offered bribes to members of Congress. Perhaps in adopting that name, the person who sent the e-mail about Mr. Menendez was making a cruel joke.
Mr. Menendez has been a target of Republican operatives before, including during his first bid for the Senate, in 2006, when his Republican opponent, secretly at first, started work on a documentary film that was going to examine allegations of corruption early in Mr. Menendez’s career. The effort was led by a Republican opposition researcher named Chris Lyon, but the film was canceled after The Times disclosed that Mr. Menendez’s Republican opponent actually was financing the effort.
Convinced that Mr. Williams might be a fraud — but concerned about the seriousness of the accusations — Ms. Sloan in July turned over 56 pages of e-mail to the F.B.I., which almost immediately assigned to the matter an investigator from its Miami office who specialized in the sexual exploitation of children.
Mr. Williams refused to meet with the F.B.I. agent, but he did provide federal investigators with details about the women said to be involved, in a series of e-mails that continued through much of the rest of last year.
The best evidence suggesting that the original tip had a political element emerged in the fall.
With the 2012 election weeks away — and no public action taken by Ms. Sloan’s group or by the F.B.I. — someone brought the material to The Daily Caller, the conservative Web site. David Martosko, the site’s executive editor, would not say in an interview last week who had contacted the site. But The Daily Caller rushed to arrange video interviews with two women claiming to be prostitutes involved with Mr. Menendez and to post the story on the Internet. The timing hurt its efforts at exposure, however, as Hurricane Sandy had just hit. The Daily Caller tried to increase coverage by letting The Drudge Report break the news, which The Caller posted on Nov. 1.
Major newspapers, including The Times, did not report on the accusations related to the prostitution claims, concluding they were not sufficiently substantiated. But the nudging only continued.
In mid-January, after Mr. Menendez was re-elected, someone posted the entire e-mail conversation between Mr. Williams and the F.B.I., agent, Regino E. Chavez, on an Internet site, disclosing to the public that there had been at least an initial inquiry by law enforcement authorities into the matter. Whoever set up this site carefully arranged it so that his or her identity could not be easily traced.
A Republican Party county organization from New Jersey then gave it another nudge, filing an ethics complaint against Mr. Menendez — based on extensive research of flight manifests — that allow it to conclude the senator had improperly flown on Dr. Melgen’s private plane.
Mr. Boehm, 63, an ex-county prosecutor and a former Capitol Hill aide to Christopher H. Smith, a prominent Republican New Jersey representative, also decided to dive in. Mr. Boehm — whose group still promotes its role in helping to expose wrongdoing by Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, leading to a formal censure by the House in 2010 — is a master of poring over court records and other public filings to find questionable links between politicians and their patrons. His targets are almost always Democrats.
He turned up evidence that Mr. Menendez had intervened with officials at the Commerce and State Departments to ask them to help force the government in the Dominican Republic to honor a contract held by a company Dr. Melgen owns to help conduct security inspections at seaports there, information Mr. Boehm provided to The Times.
He also found that a business Dr. Melgen owned had contributed $700,000 to a Democratic political action committee that helped finance Mr. Menendez’s re-election bid last year. The Times, after considerable additional digging, reported both these facts.
Mr. Menendez himself added some corroboration: he reimbursed Dr. Melgen $58,500 for two flights to the Dominican Republic that he had taken aboard his private jet in 2010 but had not properly paid for. When the F.B.I. raided Dr. Melgen’s offices in Florida last month, the story — nearly nine months after the first tip — became a media firestorm.
Dr. Melgen’s supporters in the Dominican Republic have said they believe the initial tips were generated by criminal players in that country who did not want his company, Boarder Support Services, to expand X-ray inspections at seaports there, perhaps disrupting cocaine headed to the United States, or by big exporters who did not want to pay higher port fees.
“It’s a strange coincidence that these powerful groups don’t want these containers inspected,” said Vinicio Castillo Semán, a prominent lawyer in the Dominican Republic who is also Dr. Melgen’s cousin, and who has called for an investigation by American authorities into who was the source of the original tip. “We have to look at what is the motive,” he added. “The Department of Justice should determine who this Peter Williams is and if he really exists.”
Back in Washington, Republican groups — sensing that Mr. Menendez was vulnerable — have intensified their push. The American Future Fund — a group based in Iowa that spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat Democrats in recent elections and more recently to block Chuck Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, from being confirmed as secretary of defense — has set up a Web site mocking Mr. Menendez and suggesting he should step down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Menendez has rejected that call, returning frequently to his claim that he is the victim of a professional smear campaign.
Ms. Sloan, in this case, said that while the investigation may have started with unsubstantiated allegations — and been pushed along by Republican-leaning groups — through the follow-up work by newspapers including The Times, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald, serious charges have since emerged.
“The increased scrutiny on Menendez’s relations with Dr. Melgen was well deserved and has highlighted some clearly improper conduct by Menendez on Melgen’s behalf,” Ms. Sloan said. “But it’s been a long, strange trip.”