Office says senator reimbursed donor for Dominican trips

AP, Washington

Fri, Feb 01, 2013 - Page 7

Senator Robert Menendez’s office said on Wednesday night that he reimbursed a prominent Florida political donor US$58,500 for the full cost of two of three trips Menendez took on the donor’s plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010. There was no public disclosure.

“The senator paid for the two trips out of his personal account and no reporting requirements apply,” Menendez’s spokeswoman Tricia Enright said.

Details of Menendez’s trips emerged as his office said unsubstantiated allegations that the senator had sex with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false.

The FBI searched the West Palm Beach, Florida, office of the donor — eye doctor Salomon Melgen — on Tuesday night and early on Wednesday, but it was unclear if the raid was related to Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.

A third trip by Menendez aboard Melgen’s plane — a campaign fund-raising journey to the donor’s residence in the Dominican Republic — took place in May 2010. That trip was reported to the Federal Election Commission, Enright said.

Menendez categorized the other two trips as personal. The first was from Aug. 6-9, 2010, a round trip from South Florida to the Dominican Republic. The second personal trip was from Sept. 3-6, 2010, from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back.

Menendez could have invoked what is known as a “friendship exemption” regarding the two personal trips, which would have required the senator to report the travel to the Senate Ethics Committee as a gift. Instead, Menendez chose to reimburse the full cost of the two trips.

The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, reported shortly before the November election that Menendez traveled on Melgen’s private plane to the Dominican Republic to engage in sex with prostitutes.

Menendez’s office said that any accusations of engaging with prostitutes “are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false.”

At FBI headquarters in Washington, spokesman Jason Pack said the bureau “cannot comment on the existence or status of an investigation.”

On Tuesday, Menendez became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succeeding Democratic Senator John Kerry.

Records filed in Palm Beach County show an Internal Revenue Service lien against Melgen of more than US$11.1 million for unpaid taxes from 2006 through 2009. Prior liens for taxes from 1998 to 2002 were subsequently withdrawn, records show.

Earlier on Wednesday, Menendez’s office said Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of the senator for many years and that the three trips that Menendez took have been “paid for and reported appropriately.”

Menendez’s office later changed the statement’s wording to specify that the trips had been “paid for or reported appropriately” to correct the impression that all three trips had been publicly reported.