Murky Menendez prostitution claims keep shifting

AP News
Posted: Mar 06, 2013 4:47 PM
Murky Menendez prostitution claims keep shifting

WASHINGTON (AP) — Murky allegations involving Sen. Robert Menendez, a top donor and prostitutes in the Dominican Republic have twisted in confusing new directions. The latest: A woman's sworn affidavit that she was paid to lie when she claimed she had slept with the senator — and a media brawl over her role in a story that ignited the furor in the first place.

A conservative media website defended publishing the sensational prostitution claims, even as ABC News confirmed that the Dominican woman who's come forward was among two self-described prostitutes who peddled the story less than a week before New Jersey voters re-elected Menendez in November.

Menendez, D-N.J., has always maintained that the allegations, which began circulating last year, were false. He has seized on the newly released affidavit, part of a related Dominican court case initiated by a prominent lawyer there, and said he looked "forward to seeing whatever the Dominican courts have that prove what I've said all along." The lawyer was identified as Vinicio Castillo Seman, the cousin of Menendez's top donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye specialist.

Castillo, who is also the son of a presidential adviser and the brother of a member of the Dominican congress, complained to Dominican police about published reports that he had hosted raunchy outings on his yacht for Menendez. Castillo has said the allegations were "false and defamatory."

Castillo this week released the sworn testimony of Nexis de los Santos Santana, 23, who recanted what she said were her earlier claims in a video that she had been hired for sex by Menendez and Melgen. De los Santos Santana said in the new sworn statement that she had never met Menendez but fabricated the accusations under pressure from a local Dominican lawyer, whom she identified in the affidavit as Melaneo Figueroa.

Figueroa did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press by phone and at his office, but he told The New York Times that he was not involved in any plot to smear Menendez and Melgen. He told the newspaper that de los Santos Santana and another lawyer in the case, Miguel Galvan, were "making accusations against me when I didn't do anything that they are saying."

On Tuesday, a Dominican judge said he needed more information about the case and ordered testimony from Menendez and Melgen prior to a June 10 hearing. Neither man would be required to appear personally before the court and could instead send an attorney to represent them, a Dominican prosecutor said. Menendez told the Newark Star-Ledger in an interview Wednesday that he was not sure yet whether he would provide any testimony, saying, "I don't know what I could tell them that would change anything."

The conservative Daily Caller, which first published the prostitution claims in November, defended its reporting, saying de los Santos Santana was not the source of its story and video that featured two unidentified escorts recounting an alleged sexual encounter with Menendez and Melgen last year.

"That woman was not one of the two prostitutes The DC interviewed for a Nov. 1 report," David Martosko, the Daily Caller's executive editor, said.

ABC News reported that de los Santos Santana was one of the Daily Caller's sources for its story. ABC said Republican operatives who insisted on anonymity had helped arrange the woman's appearance, along with two additional women, in online interviews with ABC News and the Daily Caller.

"GOP operatives helped to arrange Skype interviews in the Dominican Republic with three women who all told ABC News the senator paid them for sex," ABC said Wednesday.

ABC said it did not broadcast the prostitution claims at the time because of doubts about the women's veracity and identities.

In a statement filed with the Dominican court and translated by the AP, de los Santos Santana said she had not agreed to be filmed for the video and suggested it was made without her knowledge. She also said she was under pressure recently from unidentified callers who did not want her to recant her allegations about Menendez and Melgen. The callers, she said, indicated she would be well paid and that they wanted to prevent Menendez from winning re-election as senator and Melgen from gaining an "X-ray contract."

Melgen is still trying to persuade the Dominican government to honor a port security contract with an X-ray screening company that he had invested in earlier. At a public hearing in June, Menendez raised questions with U.S. officials about the Dominican government's failure to honor that contract.

Menendez and Melgen's overlapping interests have repeatedly raised questions in recent months. Menendez was compelled to reimburse $58,000 for two flights to the Dominican Republic aboard Melgen's private jet for personal trips in 2010 that he previously had failed to report, prompting scrutiny by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Menendez has also acknowledged contacting U.S. health agencies to question their billing practices and policies amid a dispute between Melgen and federal authorities. And Menendez was a key sponsor of a natural gas bill that could have aided a Melgen investment in a Florida company that markets a conversion system for natural gas truck engines.

Melgen has given more than $14,000 directly to Menendez's political campaigns since the late 1990s and, through his eye clinic, donated $700,000 last year to a "super" political committee that supported Democratic party Senate candidates. The committee, in turn, spent $582,000 to back Menendez's re-election effort.