An 11th-hour attack ad from a Republican candidate in New Jersey rehashes old, unproven accusations that Sen. Robert Menendez slept with underage sex workers during trips to the Dominican Republic.
These claims emerged days before Menendez was reelected to the Senate in 2012. The FBI and a platoon of reporters from national and New Jersey news organizations spent months investigating whether the senator was committing sexual crimes with minors outside the country. The accusations were never substantiated.
The Hugin camp says he is not accusing Menendez of sleeping with underage sex workers, only that people should take a fresh look at these accusations in the changed climate of the #MeToo era. That’s a neat trick: Throw a bomb onto the battlefield and ask the crowd to defuse or detonate.
“The public has a right to know all the facts about the FBI investigation of @SenatorMenendez and decide for themselves,” Hugin tweeted Oct. 15.
We accepted Hugin’s invitation, reviewed the entire episode anew, analyzed the Hugin campaign’s supporting materials for the ad and dug into the two legal filings at the center of these claims — a 2013 affidavit from an FBI agent who investigated the accusations and a 2015 court filing that the Department of Justice submitted in Menendez’s bribery case.
The Justice Department indicted Menendez on corruption charges in 2015 and argued that he acted as the “personal United States senator” for his friend and top donor, Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. Menendez was accused of pressuring top officials in President Barack Obama’s administration to take actions that would benefit Melgen’s financial interests in the United States and the Dominican Republic, in exchange for lavish gifts, ritzy travel accommodations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions toward Menendez’s reelection bid that allowed the senator to live well beyond his means on Melgen’s dime. Among other charges, Menendez was accused of securing U.S. visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends and failing to include several flights on Melgen’s jet in his financial disclosure forms.
The jury in Newark deadlocked in 2017, the judge declared a mistrial and later acquitted Menendez of various charges, and the Justice Department dropped the rest of the case. But the Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” the Democratic senator in a four-page letter. In a separate case that did not involve Menendez, Melgen was sentenced to 17 years in prison for defrauding Medicare of $73 million.
Long before it crumbled, the case against Menendez also involved sex. Ultimately, however, the allegations that Menendez slept with sex workers, underage or otherwise, did not make the cut and were not part of the indictment or trial.
(Note: The underage-prostitution allegations are not the same as the prostitution allegations from adult women who claimed Menendez did not pay them in full in a report published in 2012 by the conservative Daily Caller. Those women later recanted.)
The underage-prostitution accusations were sent first to a nonprofit watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), via email by a pseudonymous tipster calling himself “Peter Williams.” This appears to be a reference to Harrison “Pete” Williams, the last New Jersey senator to wind up in the slammer. Williams was convicted of bribery in 1981 as part of the Abscam scandal.
Unable to verify the accusations linking Menendez to underage sex workers, CREW referred Williams’s communications to the FBI.
“Menendez has many problematic issues in his past, so I am not a big defender of Bob Menendez. That said, this ad is outrageous,” said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who was the executive director of CREW at the time. “I can tell you definitively that there was no evidence ever to support the underage-prostitution allegations.” Sloan is a former Democratic congressional aide.
Williams emailed the FBI with accusations about four purported underage sex workers in the Dominican Republic who he claimed had sex with Menendez, according to an affidavit filed on Feb. 14, 2013, by an FBI special agent on the case, Gregory J. Sheehy. None of these four purported sex workers was named in the affidavit. Williams was the lone source for their claims.
CREW received three other emails purportedly sent by an adult woman, identified only as “M.C.,” who was described by Williams as a prostitute for Melgen. Williams forwarded the first of those emails from M.C. to CREW.
M.C. wrote that she saw Menendez participating in “sexual activities with prostitutes” as young as 16 years old, according to the FBI affidavit. Sheehy noted in the affidavit that IP address records showed M.C.’s and Williams’s emails came from different locations at different times. “It would appear, therefore, that ‘M.C.’ and Peter Williams are in fact different people,” Sheehy wrote, without settling the question. M.C.’s emails did not mention specific underage sex workers.
The most explosive claim in Hugin’s ad is a quote from Sheehy’s affidavit: “For several years, Menendez had been traveling to the Dominican Republic to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes — some of whom were minors.”
But the ad leaves out an important attribution immediately before that. The full sentence reads, “In that email and in the emails that followed, Mr. Williams alleged that, for several years, Menendez had been traveling to the Dominican Republic to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes — some of whom were minors.” (Emphasis ours.)
Sheehy was not saying — as Hugin’s ad suggests — that the FBI had proof of the underage-prostitution accusations against Menendez. He was describing Williams’s allegations. The Hugin ad doesn’t mention Williams.
The Sheehy affidavit also includes this paragraph: “As of the writing of this Amended Affidavit, Mr. Williams has refused to meet with the FBI, either by phone or in person. Mr. Williams has not disclosed enough information for the FBI to identify any minors.”
Missing from Hugin’s ad is the key fact that Sheehy in his affidavit specifically asked a judge to find probable cause that Melgen knowingly engaged with sex workers, including minors. But Sheehy did not seek that same probable cause determination for Menendez.
This is important because probable cause is a relatively low bar in the legal system. It is not enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (which is the standard for convictions). Probable cause is enough to authorize an arrest or search warrant for an individual suspected of wrongdoing. The FBI affidavit did not seek a probable cause determination that Menendez engaged sex workers, underage or otherwise, although it did lay out probable cause for the bribery and corruption allegations against the senator.
It’s not difficult to see why the FBI investigated the underage-prostitution allegations. Some of the bread crumbs Williams was giving the FBI led to real people. The affidavit says FBI agents interviewed “Y.F.” and Svitlana Buchyk, two adult women whom Williams had described as sex workers working for Melgen. In their FBI interviews, both denied they were sex workers, both said they had been girlfriends of Melgen, and both told the FBI they never saw Menendez in the company of “prostitutes or underage females.”
Some of the bread crumbs were dates that turned out to match Menendez’s visits to the Dominican Republic. The Sheehy affidavit says Menendez was in that country at the same times pointed out in Williams’s emails: February 2009, May 2009, May 2010 and December 2011. Williams in one email passed on information from the fourth purported underage sex worker, who he said had sexual encounters with Menendez during those same months and in June 2009. The FBI noted that Menendez was not on the island in June 2009, although he was visiting near the end of May 2009.
Hugin’s ad essentially raises the alarm about those old bread crumbs and ignores all the other relevant but inconvenient information in the FBI affidavit and in news reports published over the next several years.
Weeks after Sheehy filed the affidavit, The Washington Post’s Carol D. Leonnig and Ernesto Londoño reported on March 4, 2013:
The tipster [Peter Williams], who last spring began e-mailing allegations to a government watchdog group and the FBI, said he had evidence that Menendez had relations with underage prostitutes and participated in sex parties arranged by Melgen, his friend and political backer.FBI agents conducting interviews in the Dominican Republic have found no evidence to back up the tipster’s allegations, according to two people briefed on their work.
More than a year later, Leonnig and The Post’s Manuel Roig-Franzia reported on July 7, 2014:
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.The alleged Cuba connection 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 former official and a second person with close ties to Menendez who had been briefed on the matter.The intelligence information indicated that operatives from Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence helped create a fake tipster using the name “Pete Williams,” according to the former official. The tipster told FBI agents and others he had information about Menendez participating in poolside sex parties with underage prostitutes while vacationing at the Dominican Republic home of Salomon Melgen, a wealthy eye doctor, donor and friend of the senator.A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, which functions as the island’s U.S. diplomatic outpost, did not respond to requests for comment.
Menendez has long been a tough critic of the Cuban government and the Castro brothers. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2015 and is now the ranking Democrat on the panel.
According to The Post’s reporting, FBI agents in the Dominican Republic did not find evidence to support the tipster’s claims that Menendez slept with underage sex workers — and an intelligence report sent to U.S. government officials said the tipster, Peter Williams, was fabricated by Cuban agents trying to plant the prostitution story in U.S. and Latin American media.
“The Washington Post was wrong,” Hugin’s campaign says on a website. “In 2015, the Obama Justice Department said it had specific, corroborated allegations of Menendez engaging [in] sex acts with minors and that they ‘were not so easily disprovable.’ In fact, the FBI detailed additional allegations that showed Melgen’s ties to women; even his own pilot described ‘young girls’ who ‘looked like escorts.’ The FBI was able to verify young women with financial ties to Melgen as being in Casa de Campo at the same time as Menendez.”
The Post’s unchallenged reporting poses an inconvenience for Hugin and his ad. But he does not provide evidence that it’s wrong.
The Hugin campaign is referring to an August 2015 filing from the Justice Department in the Menendez corruption case. That document was not charging or substantiating allegations that Menendez engaged underage sex workers. It argued that the FBI had sound reasons to investigate these allegations. (Remember the bread crumbs?)
Before his trial began, Menendez had filed a motion to dismiss the corruption case. As one basis for his motion, Menendez alleged prosecutorial misconduct, reasoning that because the FBI’s investigation began with the underage-prostitution allegations, everything that followed on corruption was tainted. (The judge rejected this argument.)
The Justice Department in its 2015 filing was contesting this allegation of prosecutorial misconduct by explaining that it found enough links to investigate (but not charge) the underage-prostitution allegations. Let’s take a look.
The filing says: “Presented with specific, corroborated allegations that defendants Menendez and Melgen had sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, the Government responsibly and dutifully investigated those serious allegations. The indictment here, of course, charges only corruption and does not include any allegations of soliciting underage prostitution.”
As would be done in the normal course, the Government took responsible steps to investigate these serious criminal allegations, which were not so “easily disprovable,” as the defendants suggest. Some eyewitnesses described a party attended by defendant Melgen in Casa de Campo — where defendant Melgen has a home and where defendant Menendez often visited — involving prostitutes. Furthermore, defendant Melgen has flown numerous young women from the United States and from other countries on his private jet to the Dominican Republic. Many of these young women receive substantial financial support from defendant Melgen. For example, defendant Melgen flew two young women — whom he met while they were performing at a South Florida “Gentlemen’s” Club — on his private jet to his villa in Casa de Campo the day after paying one young woman $1,000 and the other young woman $2,000. Indeed, one of defendant Melgen’s pilots described “young girls” who “look[ed] like escorts” traveling at various times on defendant Melgen’s private jet. Some young women who received substantial sums of money from defendant Melgen were in the same place as defendant Menendez at the same time. Moreover, when the allegations were first reported, defendant Menendez defended himself with public statements that are easily disprovable. Specifically, he repeated several times that he had only flown on defendant Melgen’s private jet on three occasions. That representation is demonstrably false. Confronted with corroborating evidence of such serious crimes, it would have been an inexcusable abdication of responsibility not to investigate these allegations.
Prosecutors mentioned “specific, corroborated allegations” and “corroborating evidence,” but a close look at the filing does not show claims that Menendez had sex with prostitutes of any age or was in the same place as prostitutes.
What the filing does say is:
- Witnesses described a party in Melgen’s villa “involving prostitutes.”
- Menendez “often visited” the same villa.
- Melgen had a bunch of entanglements with young women.
- “Some young women” (not specified as prostitutes or underage prostitutes) “who received substantial sums of money from defendant Melgen were in the same place as defendant Menendez at the same time.”
- Menendez at first defended himself from these prostitution allegations by stating falsely several times “that he had only flown on Melgen’s private jet on three occasions.” In fact, Menendez flew on the jet at least eight times, according to the Justice Department.
Prosecutors speak about their evidence through criminal charges. This 2015 filing specifically says that the indictment does not include charges of soliciting underage sex workers and that doing so outside the United States would be a crime. The filing does not rebut The Post’s reporting specifically or broadly. It’s possible for two things to be true at once: The FBI saw enough smoke to start an investigation into the underage-prostitution accusations, and the FBI later found no evidence to support these accusations. That’s what a full review of the facts indicates.
Incidentally, this reporter speaks Spanish fluently and traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2013, partly to investigate the underage-prostitution allegations. At that time, this reporter worked for the Newark Star-Ledger. Another reporter at the newspaper who was communicating with Peter Williams via email passed along a telephone number for one of the sex workers who purportedly had been involved with Menendez. This reporter dialed the number; no one picked up.
Why is this ad coming out now, weeks before the election?
“Bob Menendez is a hypocrite,” the Hugin website says. “Last week in a speech on the floor of the Senate, Bob Menendez called for all women to be believed. Yet, Menendez claims that no one should believe the underage women who accused him.”
Hugin’s website compares the accusations that Menendez solicited underage sex workers with the allegations of sexual assault from Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh of groping her over her clothes and covering her mouth in an encounter from 1982 that he denied.
The Hugin website also refers to a New Jersey state government official named Katie Brennan, who has alleged that a former campaign aide and administration official for Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) named Albert J. Alvarez raped her and went unpunished. He denied the accusation through his attorney.
There are obvious differences here: Ford came forward in an interview with The Post and gave sworn testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Hugin in the end said he would have voted for Kavanaugh. Menendez voted no.) Brennan detailed her assault for New Jersey prosecutors and came forward in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
The purported underage sex workers in the Dominican Republic never came forward, their identities aren’t known, and The Post’s reporting indicates these accusations were part of a Cuban plot to tar Menendez.
Women in the Dominican Republic may not feel as empowered as those in the United States to come forward with accusations about sex, especially in the case of a powerful elected official such as Menendez. Yet these accusations were investigated by the FBI, CREW, and journalists from multiple news organizations in New Jersey and nationally. The FBI, as noted, did not seek a probable cause determination for Menendez over the prostitution allegations, although it did seek one for Melgen.
Responding to detailed questions, Hugin campaign spokesman Nick Iacovella wrote in an email that “statements by Mr. Williams to an FBI agent are evidence,” that “statements by M.C. and the fourth purported victim are likewise evidence” and that “the DOJ regularly has evidence of crimes that it does not prosecute.”
He wrote: “We believe the allegations to be credible. In large part, because the FBI believed them to be credible and corroborated key facts. The fact that The Post has a former official saying U.S. intelligence ‘suggested’ Peter Williams was a persona created by the Cuban government is not dispositive of anything. In fact, it is little more than hearsay based on innuendo. It certainly wouldn’t be admissible in any court. Nor does it carry the weight of sworn statements by an FBI agent or a DOJ pleading suggesting the allegations were credible and had been corroborated. Moreover, this is just one of the various conspiracy theories that has been peddled by Menendez and his supporters. Remember, Melgen initially denied the claims as those of business associates. Menendez said they were part of a right-wing conspiracy, then Cuba, then the Obama Justice Department punishing him for his position on Iran.”
He added: “There are differences in the fact that Ford and Brennan were brave enough to come forward and step into the unforgiving spotlight to make their accusations. However, anonymity is not evidence of falsity. The fact is that most victims of sexual assault do not come forward and we suspect that the percentage of victims of sex trafficking and underage prostitution who come forward is even lower especially when they do not enjoy the same protections as Ford and Brennan and are making allegations regarding men who exercise enormous influence in a country without the same protections as the United States.”
The Pinocchio Test
To accuse a rival candidate of maybe sleeping with underage prostitutes, solid evidence is an absolute must. The evidence for Hugin’s ad fails the test. There’s nothing new in the ad except for a dark descent into corrosive haze.
Hugin’s attack ad says the FBI had “evidence” that Menendez slept with underage sex workers but neglects to mention that the FBI attributed this to Peter Williams. Also absent from the ad: The FBI said in the same affidavit that it could not identify any minors based on the information Williams provided. Also absent: The fact that the FBI did not lay out a basis for probable cause that Menendez engaged underage sex workers.
Also absent: The Justice Department did not charge these allegations. Also absent: The Washington Post reported that the FBI investigated in the Dominican Republic and found no evidence. Also absent: The Post reported on intelligence received by U.S. officials that the Cubans made up Peter Williams as part of a cloak-and-dagger operation to tar Menendez, a political foe.
All of this is crucial, mitigating information; none of it is new this year. Hugin is right: “The public has a right to know all the facts about the FBI investigation of @SenatorMenendez and decide for themselves.”
Our decision: Four Pinocchios.
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