-- A Dominican lawyer paid three women to falsely claim on camera last year that they had sex with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, police said Monday.
The women told police that attorney Melanio Figueroa paid them each between $300 and $425 to record interviews in October, National Police spokesman Gen. Máximo Báez Aybar said at a news conference.
Two of those interviews might have been published by conservative news website The Daily Caller just before the November elections. The women, whose faces were blurred out to conceal their identity, claimed to have been paid as escorts for sex with a man named “Bob.”
The police announcement provides the strongest evidence yet contradicting accusations that Menendez flew to the Dominican Republic for sex parties in the vacation home of political benefactor and prominent Florida eye doctor Salomón Melgen.
The accusations along with other claims that later surfaced helped enmesh Menendez and Melgen in scandal.
Báez said the videos were part of a plot orchestrated by Figueroa in which he said he was using the information in a phony divorce proceeding to discredit a man known as “Bob.” The women were unaware that their false statements would be used against a U.S. senator, Báez said.
Figueroa is wanted for questioning. Police said they did not know his motive for allegedly orchestrating the scheme or whether someone else was paying him to do it.
To carry out the plan, Figueroa “contacted another attorney, Miguel Angel Galván, to find three women and make a recording in which they cite the name ‘Bob,’” Báez said.
Galván then turned to Nexys de los Santos Santana, 23, who was asked to find two other women to give false statements. Santos, who appears in the video wearing yellow, was paid the equivalent of $425, according to police.
On Monday, a woman who answered the phone number listed for Santos said she’d already told the police everything before hanging up.
Santos last month entered sworn testimony in a Dominican court claiming she was tricked into making the statements. Some details of that testimony, however, differ from the police details. For instance, she claims she was surreptitiously recorded and only paid $100. Police said the women knew they were being recorded.
A second woman, who wears a black dress in recorded interview, was identified as Adalgiza Reyes Cordero, 24. Figueroa also paid her $425, police said.
A third woman, Vanessa María Núñez, 20, was paid around $300, the police said. She did not appear in The Daily Caller videos.
Menendez’s office was quick to highlight the police findings.
“The evidence released today by Dominican law enforcement authorities proves what we have said all along: that the smear campaign against Senator Menendez is based on lies, lies we now know were paid for by interests whose identities have not yet been fully disclosed,” his office said in a statement.
Menendez continues to face questions about wielding political influence to help Melgen’s Dominican business interests. The Washington Post reported last week that a Miami federal grand jury, directed by the Justice Department, is investigating those claims.
Monday’s police announcement also does not address separate claims of prostitution, some with underage girls, made in anonymous emails by a tipster going by the name “Peter Williams.” Those claims helped launched an FBI investigation, which appears over.
The women in these videos don’t appear to match the description of many of the women in the emails from the shadowy tipster, who suggested in one email to the FBI that he had nothing to do with the women in the Daily Caller video.
Figueroa, who did not return calls for comment, previously told The Miami Herald that he no longer has contact with the women and that claims that he orchestrated the scheme were untrue.
According to details of the investigation released Monday, Figueroa brought the women to a hotel in La Romana, a coastal city two hours east of the capital, Santo Domingo. They planned to record the videos there, but scrapped the plan because there was no Wi-Fi Internet signal.
They moved to a shopping center in La Romana, where they sat on wood benches for the interviews.
There, two women were recorded, claiming to have been paid as escorts for sex around Easter at the exclusive development Casa de Campo, where Melgen owns a home.
The Daily Caller has said that a third woman was standing by to be interviewed by webcam when the laptop battery died.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the publication said it was “looking into the new developments.”
Melgen’s lawyer, Kirk Ogrosky, said in a statement that the investigation “is further evidence corroborating what we have been saying from day one — that the allegations against Dr. Melgen are false and politically motivated.”
Ogrosky said “right-wing propagandists purporting to be journalists have done irreparable harm to Dr. Melgen and his family.”
The women’s claims helped fuel a scandal that entangled Menendez, Melgen, and a Dominican lawyer, Vinicio Castillo, who is Melgen’s cousin and the son of the powerful Dominican drug czar Vincho Castillo.
Last month, Castillo asked the police and a specialized investigative unit that handles high-tech crimes to open a criminal investigation to find the source of the allegations.