About those prostitutes

In the Menendez affair, ABC News is looking better and better for having stepped away from a story that the Daily Caller is still trying to flog

For the last two months, the press has been rehashing allegations that Senator Robert Menendez slept with prostitutes, some of them underage, during trips to the Dominican Republic with Salomon Melgen, his longtime friend and donor. As I noted yesterday, there is virtually no evidence to support these claims, other than anonymous interviews with two of the alleged prostitutes, which were published by The Daily Caller days before the 2012 election. Some reporters always suspected those interviews were sketchy, it turns out, and they are looking smarter by the minute.

Yesterday afternoon, The Washington Post reported the following:

An escort who appeared on a video claiming that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) paid her for sex has told Dominican authorities that she was instead paid to make up the claims and has never met or seen the senator, according to court documents and two people briefed on her claim.

The woman’s lawyer also held a press conference in Santo Domingo. As The Miami Herald reported, he distributed sworn statements from the woman, Nexis de los Santos Santana, and a Dominican lawyer, Miguel Galván, “claiming they were duped as part of an elaborate plan hatched by a Dominican lawyer under the guise of a divorce case involving Menendez’s longtime friend and donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen.”

Almost immediately, the Caller shot back—“turns out The Washington Post got the wrong hooker,” Caller editor Tucker Carlson tweeted—and soon posted a rebuttal, claiming that de los Santos Santana was not one of the women featured in its report, and that The Washington Post was confused about her identity. As Dashiell Bennett of The Atlantic Wire has argued, the Caller’s “defense isn’t much more solid than the original story.” Nevertheless, its response has ricocheted thought the press, with many reporters and bloggers giving the dueling claims about de los Santos Santana near equal weight.

Meanwhile, another story, which sheds a brighter light on the Menendez affair, has gotten relatively little play. Earlier today, Rhonda Schwartz and Brian Ross, who head ABC’s investigative unit, revealed that the network interviewed a woman they believe to be de los Santos Santana back in November:

Last fall, Republican operatives, who insisted on anonymity, helped arrange the woman’s appearance, along with two additional women, in back-to-back, on-line interviews with ABC News and a conservative news website, the Daily Caller….ABC News did not broadcast or initially report on the claims because of doubts about the women’s veracity and identity.

Schwartz and Ross go on to explain some of the reasons they found her claims suspicious:

Her account of sex with Menendez in the video interview was almost word-for-word the account given by two other women who were produced for interviews about having sex with the man they knew only as “Bob.”

Asked during the interview with ABC News how she knew that the man named “Bob” was a United States Senator, one of the other women said she had put the name “Bob” into a web search site and a picture of Menendez popped up.

Interestingly, Schwartz and Ross report that they interviewed three women, while the Caller’s original story featured only two. Yesterday, the Caller revealed that it was supposed to interview a third woman as well, but that the interview was cancelled due to technical difficulties. This seems to bolster ABC’s assertion that the women it interviewed—including the one it identified as de los Santos Santana—are the same as those featured in the Caller report.

There are other reasons to suspect that de los Santos Santana was one of the women the Caller interviewed. In her affidavit, de los Santos Santana reportedly says that she had been coached to say that Menendez offered her $500 but paid her only $100. One of the women interviewed by ABC and the Caller said just that. De Los Santos Santana and Galván also state that the scheme was orchestrated by a Dominican lawyer name Melanio Figueroa (a claim Figueroa denied in an interview with the Herald). The Caller story that first aired the prostitution allegations noted that the women spoke through a translator and were accompanied by an attorney. His name—Melanio Figueroa.

It’s also worth noting that ABC—which was apparently the first news outlet to catch wind of the prostitution allegations, and which spent months trying to independently confirm them—found the women’s claims so dubious that it avoided reporting the prostitution claims, even as other mainstream outlets were giving them prominent billing. This stoked the ire of conservative media watchdogs, such as the Media Research Center, which took ABC to task in a report last month:

ABC has yet to do a single morning or evening story on the brewing sex scandal. Menendez actually appeared on the January 27 edition of ABC’s This Week. But guest host Martha Raddatz failed to ask about the controversy. There was only one mention of the scandal, on the February 3 This Week, when ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, asked Democratic Senator Harry Reid: “Are you comfortable with [Menendez] serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as these investigations continue?…There are some relatively serious allegations here. Are you confident he did nothing wrong?”

In retrospect, ABC News looks pretty smart. Unfortunately, others were not as cautious: As I reported yesterday, according to LexisNexis, Menendez’s name has appeared alongside the word “prostitute” in more than 900 news stories, blog posts, columns, and broadcasts in the past several months.

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Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications. Tags: , , ,