By Justin Sink - 02/04/13 11:32 PM EST
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) broke his silence on an alleged prostitution scandal for the first time Monday, dismissing the allegations that he solicited women during trips to the Dominican Republic as “totally unsubstantiated” and “absolutely false.”
“The smears that right wing blogs have been pushing since the election, that is totally unsubstantiated — it's amazing to me that anonymous, nameless, faceless individuals on a website can drive that kind of story into the mainstream,” Menendez told CNN in an interview Monday. “But that's what they've done successfully. Now nobody can find them, nobody ever met them, nobody ever talked to them, but that's where we're at.”
The conservative website The Daily Caller published a story in November reporting that Menendez had solicited prostitutes while at the Dominican home of longtime friend Dr. Salomon Melgen. Melgen has since come under FBI investigation, and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a non-profit watchdog group, has published e-mails from a man claiming to have testimony from three sex workers hired by Menendez.
But one of the women cited in those e-mails was interviewed Monday by Univision, and denied having ever worked as a prostitute or having met Menendez.
“I've never participated in those activities, I don't know those people or that man,” 21-year-old Yaneisi Fernandez told Univision.
Menendez is facing a Senate ethics probe into two of the flights provided by Melgen. A complaint filed by the New Jersey Republican party a week after the election argued that Menendez had failed to account for four flights; three were proven not to be an issue. A review by the senator's chief of staff found another flight that was potentially non-compliant with Senate ethics rules. Menendez wrote a personal check in early January for $58,500 to cover the two flights.
Asked about the flights Monday, Menendez claimed they had simply not come to his attention.
“I was a big travel schedule in 2010 as the chair of the DSCC plus my own campaign, getting ready for a re-election cycle, and in the process of all that, it unfortunately fell through the cracks that our process didn't catch… When it came to my attention that payment had not taken place, I personally paid for them in order to meet my obligation,” Menendez said.
Pressed on whether he had simply paid for the flights after getting caught, Menendez argued that initial reports on his travel had been incorrect. The New Jersey lawmaker said he had also self-reported a flight that had not been in the initial complaint.
“There are a series of flights that were alleged. Several of them were shown not to be the case. But after the election, when I got to look at the allegations and I did my own self-inspection, I ultimately came forward,” Menendez said.
Menendez, set to become the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, also acknowledged it was his “responsibility” to pay for the flights — although he stopped short of admitting wrongdoing.
“It's certainly the responsibility of myself, when it came to my attention to do so,” Menendez said. “If it had come to my attention before, I would have, in fact, done it before. When it came to my attention I did what was right, and I paid for it myself.”
Updated at 8:45 p.m.