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In the wake of an FBI raid on the office of a friend and political donor, Sen. Robert Menendez aggressively countered news reports Wednesday linking him to an alleged travel and prostitution scandal. And it is not yet clear whether the New Jersey Democrat is a target of any investigations by the Justice Department or the Senate Ethics Committee.
Menendez, on the cusp of assuming the Senate Foreign Relations chairmanship and fresh off winning a second full term in November, acknowledged in a statement that he took three flights on the private plane of Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor whose office was searched by the FBI. But Menendez said all of the trips “have been paid for and reported appropriately.”
The Senate Ethics Committee would not comment on whether Menendez is under investigation.
The Miami Herald, which first disclosed the FBI raid, reported that law enforcement may be investigating allegations that Menendez traveled to the Dominican Republic and engaged in trysts with prostitutes.
The Daily Caller website reported in November that anonymous Dominican prostitutes said Menendez had been a client.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington last July requested that the FBI and Justice Department investigate Menendez after a whistle-blower identified as Peter Williams alleged that the lawmaker engaged in sex tourism. Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director, has raised questions about the tipster’s credibility, saying he refused to meet in person to discuss the matter.
“Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false,” Menendez’s office said in a statement released Wednesday.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, passed after the Jack Abramoff lobbying and corruption scandal, made it more difficult and more costly for members of Congress to travel on personal or corporate aircraft. A senator who travels on a private plane for his campaign would need to reimburse the owner at the charter rate, ethics legal experts said.
However, when senators fly on behalf of party committees, as Menendez may have done as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, then they may reimburse the cost of a first-class ticket.
Senators may also accept travel on a plane owned by a personal friend, so long as the person is not a lobbyist, and report the travel as a gift on disclosure forms. A gift worth more than $250 also requires approval of the Ethics Committee and disclosure by the senator, notes Ken Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Menendez does not appear to have reported such gifts on his disclosure documents in recent years.