Anatomy of a so-called scandal (UPDATED)

On the Sen. Menendez story, flimsy prostitution claims vs. stronger allegations of influence-peddling. Guess which gets more play?

Update, 3/4, 7:15 pm: Less than two hours after this article was posted, The Washington Post published a story on its site under the headline, “Escort says Menendez prostitution claims were made up.” According to reporters Carol Leonnig and Ernesto LondoƱo:

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

The woman identified a lawyer who approached her and a friend to make the videotape, according to affidavits obtained by the Post. That man has in turn identified another lawyer who gave him a script for the tape and paid him to find women to fabricate the claims, the affidavits say.

The original post appears below.


On February 18, CBS kicked off a segment of its morning newscast with a scintillating claim. Reporting from Washington, correspondent Jan Crawford said the network had “confirmed” the FBI was looking into allegations that Senator Robert Menendez “solicited prostitutes while on a trip to the Dominican Republic.” So far, Crawford added, the agency hadn’t found any solid evidence. The camera then cut to an interview with Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo, who had been looking into the charges for weeks. Caputo said he and his colleagues hadn’t turned up anything, either. “Trying to find someone this many months after the fact based on all the sketchy allegations and the unclear claims, it’s really difficult,” he noted.

“Sketchy” may be an understatement. For nearly a year, the FBI, government watchdogs, and major news organizations have been investigating these allegations, which were first lodged by a shady anonymous tipster. While serious questions have been raised about favors Menendez has allegedly done for a political donor, no credible evidence has yet emerged that the senator consorted with prostitutes. The closest thing to “proof” are anonymous interviews with supposed hookers that were published by a conservative news site with a history of twisting facts. And yet the media continues to give the allegations ample play. According to a search of LexisNexis, Menendez’s name has appeared alongside the word “prostitute” in more than 900 news stories and broadcasts—nearly 100 in the last two weeks of February alone.

The vacuum of evidence has been noted by at least one media critic. It has been acknowledged publicly by the woman who initiated the FBI investigation. It has even been laid out in telling detail by reporters describing the allegations to their audience—and yet the accusations are only given more weight as time goes on. The episode shows how easily scandals are manufactured in the media echo chamber, especially as more partisans enter the fray.

The prostitution allegations first surfaced in April of last year, when an anonymous tipster emailed the non-profit government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. The emailer, who went by the pseudonym Peter Williams, claimed to have “first hand information regarding the reiterated participation of Senator Robert Menendez in inappropriate sexual activities.” Specifically, he alleged that Menendez—a New Jersey Democrat, who now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—regularly travelled to the Dominican Republic with his longtime friend and donor Dr. Salomon Melgen for “pleasure” vacations involving “prostitutes in their 20s.”

The tipster added that he had “abundant and detailed” evidence, including photos and videos. “I am willing to supply all of the information I have once an investigation has been initiated,” he wrote. “My sources are available and willing to travel to the US in order to testify.”

CREW’s executive director Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor, says she was immediately suspicious, partly because Williams claimed he’d known about Menendez’s misdeeds since 2008 but didn’t come forward until Menendez was running for re-election. Nevertheless, she looked into the allegations. She also passed the tip on to Rhonda Schwartz, the chief of investigative projects for ABC News. Between May and November 2012, Schwartz exchanged numerous emails with the tipster, but he refused to meet or speak with her by phone. This set off alarm bells. “I’m eager to meet you because not only would it be easier to discuss this freely in person,” Schwartz wrote in a late May email, “but frankly I’d also like some assurance that we are not being set up by political opponents of the Senator.”

Williams was also cagey when Schwartz pressed for specifics. And his story was shifty—among other things, the number of prostitutes multiplied, and the tipster began alleging that at least one of them was underage. At one point, several women did come forward claiming they had slept with Menendez for money. But they couldn’t offer any proof of their identity, and Schwartz’s team determined that their stories were not credible.

In fact, neither Schwartz nor Sloan found any credible evidence to support the tipster’s allegations. While Sloan suspected the whole thing was a scam, the claims were serious enough that she turned Williams’s emails over to the FBI and asked the bureau to investigate. Based on his email exchange with the agent assigned to the case, which has been uploaded to the Internet, Williams was only slightly more forthcoming with the FBI than he had been with Schwartz.

“The person clearly wanted a scandal rather than an actual investigation,” Sloan says, “because he wouldn’t talk to anyone.”

The scandal did come, albeit slowly. Five days before the 2012 elections, the conservative news site The Daily Caller ran a story under the ham-fisted headline, “Women: Sen. Bob Menendez paid us for sex in the Dominican Republic.” It hinged on the claims of two anonymous women, who also appeared in video with their faces airbrushed out. According to one ABC executive, the women were among those the network had vetted and found less than credible.

The report barely registered with the mainstream media, which was consumed with Hurricane Sandy, but its claims caught the attention of some conservative operatives. As The New York Times reported last month:

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.

[Ken] 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….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….

In other words, partisan players investigating the tipster’s dubious claims ended up finding evidence of real ethical breaches. This created a sticky dilemma for reporters, who now had to untangle two overlapping sets of allegations, one of which was more credible than the other.

Those tensions came to the fore on January 29, when the FBI raided Melgen’s South Florida ophthalmology practice as part of a Medicare fraud investigation. The following day, the Herald reported that the FBI was also probing Melgen’s ties to Menendez—including allegations from a “shadowy tipster” that “the two allegedly hired underage prostitutes.” The prostitution claims soon began cropping up in other mainstream outlets. As Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote at the time, it was apparently the FBI probe that “moved the prostitution matter from what Fox News eminence Bill O’Reilly termed ‘lascivious crap’ to what journalists term ‘fair game.’” Wemple also pointed out that an investigation “based on thin and shifty charges” is a flimsy peg to hang a story on.

On the whole, though, the media struck a reasonable balance, at least initially. Many reported in depth on the favors Menendez had allegedly done Melgen, including trying to persuade top federal health officials, who found that Melgen had grossly overbilled Medicare, that the findings were unjust. While some mentioned the prostitution claims, they did so in passing, and they stressed that the claims were dubious. In early February, for example, the Post noted that “the allegations—made by an anonymous whistleblower and first publicized on a conservative Web site—have not been verified independently.”

Those reporters who dug into the evidence found more reason for skepticism. The Miami Herald, which ushered the allegations into the mainstream, dispatched a team of reporters to the Dominican Republican to try to find the alleged prostitutes, based on names and contact information in the tipster’s emails. They turned up “shreds of evidence” that were consistent with Williams’s tale, but “no concrete links” tying Menendez to prostitution. As for the women in question, they were “nowhere to be found.”

The relative restraint with which the mainstream press handled prostitution allegations vexed conservative media watchdogs like the Media Research Center.

Then, in mid-February, something shifted. First, on Friday, February 15, the Post splashed a juicy headline across its site: “FBI Probing Allegations Sen. Menendez Patronized Prostitutes In Dominican Republic.” The following day, a variation of the story ran on page one of the paper. The probe had been public for weeks by this point. The Post added no new information on the prostitution front, except that the FBI had sent agents to the Dominican Republic to interview witnesses, and that it had “found no evidence to support the claim.” Some might argue that the FBI failing to substantiate unsubstantiated allegations, especially of the sort that can destroy a person’s reputation, is hardly grounds for rehashing them on A1. But other outlets followed suit, including Politico and The Hill, which ran pieces based on the Post’s reporting; the following Monday, CBS aired its segment, which “confirmed” an investigation was underway.

Most of these reports explained that the FBI had found little or no evidence to support the prostitution allegations. But the bold-face headlines hyping an official probe gave these claims new credibility; meanwhile, the better-founded allegations about Menendez using his influence to benefit a major donor became B-matter.

The shift in tone since has been palpable. While there have been few new developments in the case, over the last two weeks the mainstream press has run dozens of stories, columns, and blog posts about Menendez’s plummeting approval ratings, his response to the scandal, and the potential fallout. Most toss in the prostitution allegations with little or no context. “Unsubstantiated” has morphed into “allegedly”—as in, “Menendez is in hot water for flying to the Dominican Republic with Melgen, allegedly to visit prostitutes,” full stop. Rather than tell the backstory, many journalists mention offhandedly that Menendez “has denied” the allegations—or, worse, link to The Daily Caller report.

Those who do set the allegations in context find themselves in a thorny predicament. CNN recently sent Drew Griffin to Santo Domingo to investigate the Menendez affair. After knocking on the door of a brothel, which presumably has some connection to the Menendez case—and having it shut in his face—Griffin explains that no one, including the FBI, has been able to confirm the anonymous emailer’s account:

It appeared the matter was pretty much dropped until more emails began arriving. The author, someone calling himself Peter Williams, even wrote to a CNN reporter last month… CNN responded asking Peter Williams to meet us anywhere, even here in Santo Domingo, to give us proof that any of his allegations were true. We have since sent six emails to P. Williams. The response? Silence.

It’s a striking moment of journalistic candor. Griffin is essentially telling viewers that the allegations, which had been dismissed as unfounded, were later deemed worthy of coverage—merely because they kept circulating. Never mind that the evidence was (in CNN’s words) “skimpy” or that the tipster’s MO had only grown shadier.

At another point in the segment, Griffin pointedly wonders whether the sexual allegations could be “one big slander campaign aimed at baiting a scandal-hungry press into saying or printing the name of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, teenage prostitution, and Caribbean sex parties all in one sentence.” Good question. Maybe he should have asked it before banging on a brothel door with a camera crew in tow.

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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: , , , , ,