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 Londoño:
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.”