(J. Scott Applewhite, File/Associated Press)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

In November 2012, Matthew Boyle, then a reporter for the Daily Caller, reported claims that Sen. Robert Menendez had paid to romp with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. Titled “Women: Sen. Bob Menendez paid us for sex in the Dominican Republic [VIDEO],” the story passed along the allegations of the unnamed women, whose faces were shrouded in the accompanying video, that they had shown up at a high-end resort in the Dominican Republic to have sex with the senator. “They claimed Menendez agreed to pay them $500 for sex acts, but in the end they each received only $100,” noted the story.

Though Boyle’s scoop sustained pointed debunking in subsequent months, another blow came last night in the pages of The Post. Carol Leonnig and Manuel Roig-Franzia reported that U.S. investigators had gathered evidence that the sordid allegations against Menendez may have been the work of Cuban intelligence agents committed to discrediting Menendez, an outspoken opponent of the Castro regime, in advance of his November 2012 reelection campaign.

Boyle last night no-commented the Erik Wemple Blog’s request for comment on this latest, salacious round in the Menendez saga.

Here’s the key line in The Post’s account: “According to a former U.S. official with firsthand knowledge of government intelligence, the CIA had obtained credible evidence, including Internet protocol addresses, linking Cuban agents to the prostitution claims and to efforts to plant the story in U.S. and Latin American media.”

Those efforts, wherever they came from, were strictly jayvee. The claims about Menendez’s conduct in the Dominican Republic were spelled out in an e-mail to watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The tipster identified himself as one “Peter Williams.” CREW wanted to check out this shadowy figure, but he never came forward in person or on the phone. CREW passed the tip along to ABC News and alerted the FBI and the Justice Department to these unsubstantiated allegation.

ABC News looked into the story and bounced off of it. It interviewed the women in what appeared to be the same setting as the Daily Caller, yet the network came away suspicious of the veracity of the prostitution claims.

The Daily Caller and Boyle bought them. “I talked to two of the prostitutes,” Boyle, who now works at Breitbart.com, told the Erik Wemple Blog last year. “I saw their faces, I heard their voices…and I know their names.” Nor did Boyle find out about the story via the CREW pipeline. “I had no clue that CREW knew about this,” said Boyle in 2013. “I had my own sources that I put together.”

Those sources spelled trouble. In March 2013, four months after Boyle’s story surfaced, The Post reported that an escort was paid to fabricate the story and had never “met or seen the senator.” Daily Caller Editor-in-Chief Tucker Carlson blasted back: “The Post’s piece is wrong,” he told the Erik Wemple Blog after the story came out. Among other defenses, the Daily Caller claimed that the recanter hadn’t figured in its story. A probe by the Dominican national police determined that the whole thing was a scam.

The Daily Caller covered the unraveling of its own story but stopped short of issuing corrections or retractions. Instead, the outlet pledged to keep working on things: “The DC has not independently verified the identities of the women involved in the Dominican National Police investigation, but will continue to investigate the case.”

Carlson didn’t immediately respond to an interview request from the Erik Wemple Blog this morning. He told Business Insider that his people are “making calls” on the story.

A Cuban smear plot against Menendez sounds like something out of a spy novel, though The Post’s account has strong moorings. According to Leonnig and Roig-Franzia, the alleged involvement of the Cuban regime was “laid out in an intelligence report provided last year to U.S. government officials and sent by secure cable to the FBI’s counterintelligence division,” according to the newspaper’s sources. At the same time, the story notes, “There was no indication that the information gathered by U.S. intelligence officials alleging Cuba’s role in the Menendez case had been fully investigated or proved.”

Menendez’s attorney, Stephen M. Ryan, sent a letter to the Justice Department earlier this year seeking a probe of the Cuban connection. Meanwhile, Menendez himself is the subject of a Justice Department inquiry over his relationship with wealthy donor and doctor Salomon Melgen. As The Post has reported, Menendez on two occasions meddled in a case where Medicare administrators pursued Melgen for over-billing the agency by $8.9 million.

The Daily Caller’s story on Menendez and the Dominican prostitutes long ago passed beyond salvation. The initial flimsiness, the recantation and then the national police investigation — it’s more than enough evidence to issue a retraction and apology to readers and Menendez. Expecting the Daily Caller to do so would be like expecting the Environmental Protection Agency to hire 230,000 new employees.

The truth as to whether Cuban intelligence was involved in spreading this story may never get nailed down. Yet the mere suggestion of a Havana connection may well suffice to scare the Daily Caller away from any future anono-attacks on prominent Democrats. It’d be one thing, after all, if this conservative Web site was duped by some really sleazy anti-Menendez operatives here in the United States; it’s quite another to be duped by the Castro regime. The Daily Caller bills itself as a “24-hour news publication providing its audience with original reporting, in-depth investigations, thought-provoking commentary and breaking news” — not as a communist propaganda organ.

Whatever the outcome, this saga should encourage rinky-dink foreign intelligence crews. Think about it: Whether tipsters were Cuban, American, Brazilian, Dominican or Swiss, look at what they accomplished. With the help of Boyle and the Daily Caller, they entered the U.S. media through an unguarded side door, and the links speak to their success. CNN sent a reporter to the Dominican Republic to investigate the allegations. The Post did so as well. The New York Times mentioned the claims. And the Associated Press and the Miami Herald both did pieces on the kerfuffle. Politico and The Post did stories on the implications for Menendez if the allegations had proven true.

That’s a good media haul.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.