Sen. Robert Menendez denies improper travel and hiring prostitutes
FBI agents search ophthalmologist's office
Sen. Robert Menendez's office issued a statement Wednesday saying he had traveled several times on a plane belonging to a Florida eye doctor who had given political donations to Menendez but that all the trips were "paid for and reported appropriately." The office also denied allegations the New Jersey Democrat had engaged the services of prostitutes.
The statement was issued after FBI agents searched the West Palm Beach office of the ophthalmologist, Dr. Salomon Melgen. Investigators were seen carrying out boxes during the search, which began Tuesday night and continued into Wednesday. An FBI spokesman in Florida confirmed there was "law enforcement activity" at the location where the search occurred but did not mention Melgen or anyone else and did not explain what agents were investigating.
In 2011, the Internal Revenue Service hit Melgen with an $11 million tax lien. Melgen has not returned repeated calls from CNN.
The statement from Menendez's office described Melgen as a friend and political supporter and said the senator had traveled on Melgen's plane three times. A spokesperson told CNN one of the trips involved official travel for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while the other two were personal trips. The spokeperson said the senator is not required to publicly disclose information concerning personal travel.
In April the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, known as CREW, started receiving e-mails from someone alleging Menendez had made several trips to the Dominican Republic and partied with prostitutes. CREW was unable to verify the claims and forwarded the information to the FBI and the criminal division at the Justice Department.
Shortly before the November election, a conservative website, The Daily Caller, ran stories saying Menendez had flown to the Dominican Republic on Melgen's plane and engaged with prostitutes. Prostitution is legal in the Caribbean nation.
"Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false," Menendez's office said in its Wednesday statement.
Meanwhile, New Jersey state Sen. Sam Thompson, a Republican, sent a complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee in November calling for an investigation, saying Menendez may have violated Senate ethics by "repeatedly flying on a private jet to the Dominican Republic and other locations ... and soliciting prostitutes." Thompson said he did not hear back from the Ethics Committee.
Menendez's spokeswoman Patricia Enright confirmed to CNN the senator made a payment of $58,500 on January 4 to Melgen's company for the full operating costs of the two flights Menendez took in August and September 2010 to the Dominican Republic.
Menendez made the payment following an exhaustive review of his travel conducted by his chief of staff Danny O'Brien in the wake of Thompson's complaint.
Enright said it was an "oversight" on the part of the senator not to have paid for the flights at the time he took them. She could not explain why the veteran lawmaker didn't know to fully disclose the flights at the time.
Enright said the New Jersey GOP ethics complaint alleged four flights but Menendez's initial review found that he was not on two of the flights mentioned in the complaint and a third flight was for official DSCC business. Since they couldn't account for the one flight, his office decided to conduct the review which turned up one other flight.
Menendez's campaign counsel advised that because the senator and doctor are old friends, he could have claimed a friendship exemption. But Menendez decided he would prefer to pay for everything and wrote the $58,500 check from his personal funds.
Both the Senate Ethics Committee and the FBI said they could not comment and that their policies are to never confirm whether they are conducting investigations.
Menendez, who is divorced, is in line to become the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The senator has not been contacted by the ethics committee but assumes it is reviewing the matter. He has no plans to resign over the issue, Enright said.
Federal Election Commission records show Melgen has made at least $193,000 in election contributions since 1998, including more than $14,000 to Menendez's Senate campaigns. Records show the doctor also donated $5,000 to Menendez's political action committee.