Menendez allegations growing rapidly, creating headache for Democrats

A cloud of scandalous allegations is rapidly growing over Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), putting Democratic leaders in a difficult position as the integrity of their immigration point man in the Senate falls under question at a critical time.

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The bad news keeps coming: a Senate Ethics probe, allegations involving underage prostitutes, an FBI investigation of a key campaign donor, undisclosed flights on the donor’s private plane, and now, reports linking Menendez to an existing multi-million dollar contract he urged officials to enforce for the disgraced donor.

Menendez denies nearly all of it. But it couldn’t come at a worse time for the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who, as the only Hispanic Democrat in the upper chamber, has led the way on his party’s recent all-out push to revamp the country’s immigration laws.

“This is a giant thorn in the side of the Democratic leadership that will make it impossible for it to drive any message at all,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for then-House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

“There is a gray cloud around the operations of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as long as this crisis continues to exist,” he said.

No Republican lawmaker has openly called for Menendez to resign yet, but the longer the New Jersey lawmaker avoids directly addressing the allegations with the press and the more attention they garner, the greater the likelihood that calls for him to step down will come.

It is more important for Menendez’s political future, however, that Democrats refrain from criticizing him publicly. If that occurs, the chances of him surviving this public relations crisis decrease dramatically.

So far, Democratic leaders are opting not to comment beyond a few words.

“Bob Menendez is my friend. He's an outstanding senator,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this week, when asked about the emerging allegations.

Similarly, White House press secretary Jay Carney dodged a question at Friday’s press briefing about whether the president is concerned that a Senate Ethics investigation will hinder the immigration reform push because of Menendez’s key role.

“Well, I have nothing to say about that. I would refer you to the Senate,” Carney said.

Menendez’s New Jersey colleague Sen. Frank Lautenberg has been the only Democrat to openly weigh in on the allegations, albeit cautiously, telling reporters on Thursday that, “If there are infractions as they are reported, it’s too bad.”

But the scandal circus in the press corps on Capitol Hill is escalating.

On Tuesday morning, Menendez was doing the cable news rounds, pressing hard for immigration reform.

“Elections have consequences and I think our Republican colleagues woke up to the new demographic in this nation as expressed by the election results,” Menendez said on MSNBC, referring to Hispanics. “As I traveled the country in this last election and in my own reelection, I said if we want to have immigration reform, use your vote to send that message. I think that was done.”

But by Tuesday night FBI agents had raided Dr. Salomon Melgen’s Florida business. By Wednesday morning, questions around Menendez’s involvement were swirling.

A friend of the New Jersey lawmaker’s, Melgen has donated thousands of dollars to Menendez while letting him fly aboard his private plane to the Dominican Republic, where the Florida doctor owns a luxury resort.

The ethics cloud thickened later in the week when The New York Times reported that Menendez helped Melgen lock down an estimated $500 million contract for a company the Florida donor had obtained an ownership interest in.

It’s unclear whether the FBI’s investigation of Melgen is related to Menendez. The doctor has an outstanding IRS lien of $11.1 million in back taxes owed from a three-year period and had previously been subjected to a $6.2 million lien that was released in 2011, according to the Miami Herald.

Last year, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) received e-mails from a man detailing a series of allegations that Menendez traveled numerous times to the Dominican resort to engage with prostitutes, at least one of whom is alleged to be underage. Unable to verify the veracity of the claims, CREW passed the information on to the Justice Department and the FBI.

The allegations eventually surfaced last November, days before Menendez’s re-election, when the conservative publication The Daily Caller published an article from interviews with two Dominican prostitutes who alleged to have slept with the lawmaker.

Menendez’s office denies the charges and claims they are politically motivated.

“Sen. Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen’s plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately,” said Menendez’s office in a statement. “Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false.”

Menendez cut Melgen a check last month from his personal account for $58,000 to reimburse him for two of the trips. But this came only after a New Jersey state lawmaker had last year asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate flights Menendez had taken on Melgen’s private plane but had not disclosed.

Menendez himself has not addressed the allegations. By Thursday, television camera crews and reporters were parked outside of his Senate office anxious to catch a glimpse of him. He was nowhere to be found, however, taking back elevators to and from the day’s votes to avoid the press, according to accounts published in The New York Post and the New York Daily News that detailed his movements.

--This report was updated at 12:28 p.m.