Menendez prostitution allegations get a little more strange

The presumed new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee may have more explaining to do about his personal foreign relations.  Documents from the FBI obtained by the Daily Caller and published online indicate that the one or more of the prostitutes that Menendez allegedly frequented in the Dominican Republic may have been underage.  They also show that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) provided the information to the FBI and also informed ABC News of the information — and yet neither went public with it prior to the election.  But was that to protect Menendez, or because the source never quite delivered the goods?

Documents published online for the first time Thursday indicate that the FBI opened an inquiry into New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez on August 1, 2012, focusing on repeated trips he took to the Dominican Republic with longtime campaign contributor and Miami eye doctor Salomon Melgen. TheDC reported in November that Menendez purchased the service of prostitutes in that Caribbean nation at a series of alcohol-fueled sex parties.

The documents, which The Daily Caller had obtained hours earlier from an anonymous source, also indicate that Carrie Levine, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), was alerted on April 9, 2012 to Menendez’s habit of paying for sex while outside the United States.

ABC News senior investigative producer Rhonda Schwartz was aware as early as May 2, 2012, the documents show, when Levine wrote a source in the Dominican Republic to say that she had “shared your allegations, but not your identities, with a respected, trusted journalist with whom we have worked on other stories.”

In another email two days later, Levine identified that journalist as one who “works for ABC News.” By May 16, Schwartz was emailing Levine’s original source with questions.

Information made available to Schwartz and Levine at that time included allegations that some of Menendez’s prostitutes were as young as 16. The source also alleged that Sen. Menendez was taking “non-authorized trips” to the Dominican Republic, suggesting that he may have been evading Senate Ethics committee rules covering disclosures when third parties pay for a senator’s travel.

When the DC reported on the allegations about Menendez in November, I remained a little skeptical of the story from the prostitutes. At least in the e-mails in this release, the FBI seemed less skeptical.  “As far as the information you have provided, we have been able to confirm most of it,” the FBI investigator wrote to the source of the information, a “Peter Williams” that first contacted CREW.  The FBI refuses to comment at this stage, which is not atypical for an ongoing investigation, and perhaps for one closed without charges being filed.

However, this part seems pretty strange:

The emails indicate that as Christmas neared, Williams was reluctant to meet Chavez in person. A similar pattern developed quickly between Williams at CREW, where Carrie Levine pressed him for details and asked for phone meetings but got neither.

Much of the online dossier is unconfirmed and may ultimately be unconfirmable. But an additional source, unrelated to the documents, confirmed to TheDC on Thursday that ABC News was working on the Menendez story as late as mid-October.

Readers were annoyed with my skepticism about this story in November, but let me play devil’s advocate for just a little longer.  The FBI got some credible information from a source that refused to identify him/herself alerting them to Menendez’ actions in the Dominican Republic, much of which they were able to confirm, but who kept putting off an in-person meeting with investigators.  The DC separately gets a tip on the story and publishes the interview with two of the prostitutes, neither of whom knew until recently just who “Bob” was.  The source tells the FBI that the videotapes are “consistent” with what he/she has discovered about Menendez — but then suddenly goes radio silent with both the FBI and CREW despite telling the FBI that he/she had “additional evidence” that Menendez consorted with underage prostitutes.

Does that sound credible to readers? I’m not criticizing the DC for reporting what they have — an FBI probe and the ABC/CREW connection are newsworthy — but the overall allegations still sound rather fishy to me.  That may be why ABC News and CREW didn’t go forward with the story, too.  If the main source won’t meet with them, and with the allegations basically resting on the source for evidence (other than testimonials from the alleged prostitutes), that would certainly raise red flags on a story that would have been explosive if true, and disastrous to both organizations if untrue.  And all these e-mails show is that the FBI agent checked out some of the checkable data, asked for more in order to pursue the accusation, and the source stopped cooperating for some reason.  They don’t actually establish much more than that.

Menendez won his re-election by 18 points shortly after the story first appeared, so he won’t have to face voters for another five-plus years.  This could get worse if other sources step forward or the original source starts cooperating.  Unless that happens, though, it’s hard to tell if this is on the level or some sort of dirty trick.