U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who heads the foreign relations committee, said “right-wing sources” are falsely claiming that he improperly helped a Florida campaign donor.
Menendez, speaking to a crowd of 300 yesterday at a Black History Month celebration at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, recounted his own struggle against discrimination during a political career that led him to become the first ethnic minority from New Jersey to serve in the U.S. Senate.
“Now we face anonymous, faceless, nameless individuals from right-wing sources seeking to destroy a lifetime of work,” said Menendez, 59, the son of Cuban immigrants. “Their smears are false. I have worked too hard and too long in the vineyards, too long with my hands, for the harvest to be soured.”
The senator, re-elected to a second six-year term in November, was referring to media reports that he had done favors for Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor who donated more than $700,000 last year to the senator’s campaign and to other Senate Democrats, according to the Washington Post. Menendez in 2009 and in 2012 had raised concerns with top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about the agency’s finding that the doctor had overbilled the government by $8.9 million, according to the Post.
On Jan. 29, the FBI, along with officials from the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general’s office, raided Melgen’s office in West Palm Beach, Florida, as part of a probe into allegations of Medicare fraud, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation who asked not to be identified in discussing the matter.
A day after the raid, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, released a letter it sent in July to the FBI and Justice Department asking them to investigate accusations raised via e-mail by a tipster. The tipster claimed Menendez engaged in sexual activities with underage prostitutes while vacationing with Melgen in the Dominican Republic.
Until yesterday, Menendez hadn’t publicly responded to the allegations beyond a Feb. 8 interview with Univision, a Spanish-language television station. “No one has bought me,” he told Univision. “No one. Ever.” He called the prostitution allegations false and has denied all wrongdoing.
The senator’s approval rating among voters has fallen to 36 percent, a 15-point drop from his January figure, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Feb. 21.
E-mails seeking comment sent to the account of the individual who made the accusations weren’t returned.
FBI agents also are looking into Menendez’s role in pushing for enforcement of a port-security contract in the Dominican Republic held by a company in which Melgen is an investor, According to the Washington Post.
Melgen stood to gain a windfall if the contract, which calls for operating X-ray scanners to screen cargo at the country’s ports, was enforced, the Post said.
Following the FBI raid, Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, the top Republican on the chamber’s six-member Ethics Committee, said the panel would review the matter.
Menendez said he wrote a $58,500 check last month to reimburse Melgen for two 2010 trips the lawmaker took to the Dominican Republic on Melgen’s private jet once the senator’s staff discovered the trips hadn’t been paid for earlier.
Menendez yesterday told reporters that any official review of his activities will clear him.
“I believe when we go through this whole process that at the end of the day, that I will be in every respect looked to have acted appropriately,” he said.