New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez's office insisted that the senator reimbursed a prominent Florida political donor for two of three trips he took on the donor's plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010 - a total of $58,500 - the Associated Press reported.
These trips were revealed when Menendez's staff searched the senator's records, in response to complaints from New Jersey Republicans. The Republicans spoke out in the wake of allegations that surfaced in the fall from the conservative website The Daily Caller, claiming that Menendez visited the Dominican Republic so he could have sex with prostitutes, the Associated Press reported. The allegations were based on emails from a Yahoo account, The Los Angeles Times reported.
"The senator paid for the two trips out of his personal account and no reporting requirements apply," Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright told the Associated Press on Wednesday night.
He paid up after reviewing his own internal findings and travel records, another spokesman, Paul Brubaker, told NJ.com.
The FBI raided the home of the donor, eye doctor Salomon Melgen, in West Palm Beach on Tuesday night, but there is no confirmation that the raid was related to Menendez, the Associated Press reported.
Menendez's third trip on Melgen's plane was professional - to Melgen's home in the Dominican Republic in 2010 - for campaign fundraising purposes. Enright told the Associated Press that the trip was reported to the Federal Election Commission. While there, Menendez raised funds from Americans in the region, ranging from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico.
But the other two trips were personal, according to the Associated Press - one from South Florida to the Dominican Republic, and the other from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back.
Menendez reimbursed those two trips in full, the Associated Press stated, instead of invoking a "friendship exemption," which would have involved him reporting the travel to the State Ethics Committee as a gift.
The senator's office sharply and promptly denied allegations that Menendez visited prostitutes, as well.
"Dr. Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of Senator Menendez for many years," said a statement issued from Menendez's office to NJ.com. "Senator Menendez has traveled on Dr. Melgen's plane on three occasions, all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately. Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically-motivated right-wing blog and are false."
Melanie Sloan, the Executive Director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics - the group that initially published the prostitute-related allegations - told The Los Angeles Times that her staff could not verify the emails from the Yahoo account, sent by a man who went by Peter Williams. In July, the paper reported, she forwarded the emails to the FBI and the Justice Department. Even she is becoming skeptical.
"I was concerned about the timing, that this guy had had information regarding Menendez, he said, since as early as 2008, but was only coming forward the spring before Menendez's election," Sloan told NJ.com. On Tuesday, Menendez took office as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Emails published on a website indicate that a Miami-based FBI agent communicated with Williams, but an FBI agent The Los Angeles Times reached on Wednesday refused to comment.
As for Melgen, his own financial problems are out in the open. The IRS lodged an $11.1 million tax lien against him, NJ.com reported. Meanwhile, though, he contributes generously to campaigns, and supported the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chaired by Menendez, as well as other congressmembers, including Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Bill Nelson, according to NJ.com. The website also reported that Melgen and his wife contributed $20,000 to Menendez's legal fund when tea party activists spearheaded a recall effort against the senator.