WASHINGTON – As political scandals go, it’s been a simmering doozy for months, featuring a powerful U.S. senator fending off potentially career-ending accusations that he hired three prostitutes during a romp in the Dominican Republican.
The story’s now on full boil as Democrat Robert Menendez, the embattled chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, demands an investigation into the Republican tipsters who he suggests may have paid the women to fabricate their stories about him as he ran for re-election last year.
“I have no idea who is behind these efforts, but I hope that the press will pursue them as vigorously to find out who was behind these efforts as they did in the first place,” the divorced Menendez said this week.
“All I know is obviously there must be interests who were trying to defeat me in my election and who obviously did not want to see me in my role as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.”
The political potboiler has also sparked finger-pointing among media organizations as the conservative website The Daily Caller stands by its reporting on the allegations while ABC News and the Washington Post declare them dead in the water.
It all began just before the Nov. 6 election, when unnamed Republican operatives reportedly arranged Skype interviews for various news organizations, including ABC and The Daily Caller, with three women in the Dominican Republic who alleged Menendez had paid them for sex when they were underage.
Their commerce with the New Jersey senator supposedly took place at a high-end resort and at the home of one of Menendez’s campaign donors, a wealthy Florida eye doctor. The Republicans pushing the story reportedly spoke of raucous pool parties where “everyone (was) naked, of course.”
ABC says it was suspicious of the women’s claims — and didn’t go public with the allegations last fall — largely because the women wouldn’t provide ID and their stories were disturbingly similar, almost word for word.
The Daily Caller, however, ran with the story and stands by it, even though one of the prostitutes filed a sworn affidavit this week saying she and the two other women were paid to use fake names and make up stories about Menendez.
The woman says she and one of her colleagues were approached by an unnamed attorney who paid them to read a prepared script containing allegations of sex with the senator. As they read out the allegations, she said, they were videotaped without their knowledge.
The FBI is investigating the prostitution claims, and has found no evidence supporting the original allegations.
The biggest mystery now: Who could have financed the Dominican women? And did someone pressure one of them into recanting her story?
The Daily Caller has refused to name its sources in an increasingly lurid scandal that seems lifted from the pages of a political thriller. ABC officials have said “Republican operatives who insisted on anonymity” peddled the story to them.
But nor does The Daily Caller believe the story is dead. The website linked Wednesday to a Miami Herald piece alleging that one of Menendez’s biggest political donors is behind the prostitute’s decision to recant her story.
Vinicio Castillo Semán is the cousin of Dr. Salomon Melgen, the eye doctor who flew Menendez on his private jet to the Dominican three years ago for the alleged romp, causing ethics problems for the senator. In January, Menendez was forced to reimburse Melgen $58,500 for those trips after he failed to report them.
Menendez, 59, the son of Cuban immigrants, has been steadfast in his denials on the prostitution allegations.
“I haven’t missed a beat, and I’m not going to allow baseless, anonymous smears to deviate my attention to the work on behalf of the people of New Jersey,” he said earlier this week.