US Senator Robert Menendez, co-chair of the US Congressional Taiwan Caucus, is facing widespread allegations of unethical conduct.
The allegations involve a friend’s business dealings, flights to the Caribbean aboard a private plane and underage prostitutes. Menendez is about to take over from incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry as chairman of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and the allegations could jeopardize his political career.
The burgeoning scandal revolves around Menendez’s close personal relationship with Miami optometrist Salomon Melgen. Menendez, 59, is one of Taiwan’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill.
In 2011, Menendez led efforts in the Senate to sell 66 F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan and wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama co-signed by 45 colleagues urging him to make the sale.
The allegations against Menendez began to surface about three months ago, but were at first restricted to right-wing Web sites. However, in the past few days, the FBI has raided Melgen’s offices and the allegations are beginning to appear in the mainstream media.
The New York Times had on its front page a story detailing the senator’s links to the Miami doctor, titled “Senator has long ties to donor under scrutiny,” while the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story under the headline: “Menendez denies reports linking him to prostitution,” and a USA Today piece read: “Menendez denies allegations involving free trips, prostitutes.”
The Times story did not contain the allegations of him visiting prostitutes, but it did say that the FBI had removed 30 boxes of documents from Melgen’s office during the raid.
It also said that the senator had taken two trips to the Dominican Republic aboard Melgen’s plane in 2010 and had failed to report them as gifts or reimburse Melgen, as he is required to.
This month, Menendez paid Melgen US$58,500 for the two trips.
The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday reported that a story recently published on the Daily Caller Web site alleged that Melgen flew Menendez to the Dominican Republic and arranged trysts for him with prostitutes, including some that were underage.
“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.
Divorced with two children, Menendez has been avoiding the press.
CNN said on its Web site on Friday that if the allegations were proven true, they would likely “topple a powerful politician and affect [US President Barack] Obama’s ability to pass legislation.”
According to the Miami Herald, the FBI investigation is believed to focus on Melgen’s finances and the claims that he provided Menendez with free trips and prostitutes.
Prostitution is legal in the Dominican Republic.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director of advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she was skeptical about the original source of the allegations.
She said that the source used by the right-wing Web sites refused to meet with her or provide proof of their claims.
The Times said that in 2010, Melgen bought a controlling interest in a company that had a contract to screen cargo from ports in the Dominican Republic.
According to the Times, the contract could be worth US$50 million annually, but has not been implemented because the government of the Dominican Republic has questions about its legality and fairness.
Menendez has spoken to the US Department of State about the contract and appears to have lobbied for it. In addition, Melgen has made large financial donations to Menendez’s re-election campaigns.
“Dr Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years,” the senator’s office said.
A senatorial aide added that there was nothing improper in Menendez advocating for Melgen’s business interests.