Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., finds himself facing embarrassing questions after FBI agents raided the home of a South Florida eye doctor who is a frequent campaign contributor to Menendez and other politicians. The questions come at an inconvenient time for Menendez, who is playing a lead role in helping craft bipartisan immigration-reform measures.
Making matters worse for Menendez, the Miami Herald splashed the damaging story above the fold on its front page Wednesday. The story reported that federal agents had raided the home of Dr. Salomon Melgen, who the newspaper said is "suspected of provided free trips and even underage Dominican prostitutes" to Menendez. Menendez, expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has denied the charges.
Melgen, a prominent donor who is facing a tax lien of more than $11 million from the IRS, frequently takes his private jet between Miami and his native Dominican Republic. Menendez has acknowledged taking at least one trip on Melgen's plane, according to the newspaper.
Menendez just chaired Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the Benghazi, Libya, attack and the confirmation of Secretary of State designee John Kerry. In the coming months he'll guide the august committee as it deals with America's response to Iranian and North Korean nuclear aspirations.
The allegations first surfaced last year in the conservative publication The Daily Caller. And this week, when a reporter from the media outlet approached Menendez, he said: "I'm not going to respond to the fallacious allegations of your story," according to the Daily Caller.
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed to the story's origins in a conservative publication, telling reporters Tuesday, "All anyone here has to look at is the source where this comes from."
While the 57-year-old senator won't face reelection until 2018, he's a pivotal figure in New Jersey's Democratic party just as it tries to oust Gov. Chris Christie or at least run a strong race against the GOP incumbent and possible presidential hopeful. It also comes as Newark Mayor Cory Booker seeks to oust Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Menendez has not taken a position in that race.
A prostitution allegation is not necessarily a death sentence in the U.S. Senate. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana faced prostitution allegations after his phone number was disclosed by a brothel owner known as the "D.C. Madam." The Republican confessed to making mistakes in his marriage and he was easily reelected. Vitter was never charged with a crime.
UPDATE: Menendez's spokesman released a statement Wednesday afternoon denying the charges: "Dr. Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years. Senator Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen's plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately. Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false."