Menendez team, prosecutors squabble over allegations of sex with underage prostitutes

In the photo taken July 23, 2015, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is seen on Capitol Hill, in Washington.
In the photo taken July 23, 2015, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is seen on Capitol Hill, in Washington. AP

This summer, the defense team for U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and a wealthy South Florida doctor accused the Justice Department of directing a “tainted” corruption case against the close friends.

They claimed the probe was initially based on “false” and politically motivated allegations of their having sex with underage prostitutes.

The Justice Department punched back this week, asserting those “specific allegations” were “corroborated” — or proven — in early stages of the investigation, even though the New Jersey Democrat and Dr. Salomon Melgen were not charged with that offense in the corruption case filed in Newark.

However, federal prosecutors in Miami, who initially reviewed the salacious sex-related allegations anonymously lodged against the pair, found the FBI’s evidence so lacking that they never presented an indictment to the grand jury here in 2013, according to law enforcement sources.

Nonetheless, the high-profile investigation regained steam when the Justice Department's public integrity section pursued influence-peddling charges against Menendez and Melgen in April.

The indictment accused the veteran lawmaker of helping Melgen with his multimillion-dollar Medicare billing dispute and other political favors in exchange for the Palm Beach County doctor’s array of gifts — including several unreported trips on a private plane to Melgen’s resort home in the Dominican Republic.

In response to a defense motion to dismiss the indictment, Justice Department prosecutors bristled over claims that they presented misleading corruption evidence to the grand jury in Newark — after the initial tip about allegations of the defendants’ having sex with underage prostitutes failed to pan out.

In their filing, prosecutors cited numerous witnesses’ grand jury testimonies and statements to the FBI, but those documents were sealed in the court record.

In their response, Justice Department prosecutors wrote that the defendants’ “corruption charges are not tainted by unproven allegations they solicited underage prostitutes.”

“Presented with specific, corroborated allegations that defendants Menendez and Melgen had sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, the government responsibly and dutifully investigated those serious allegations,” prosecutors wrote.

“The indictment here [in Newark], of course, charges only corruption and does not include any allegations of soliciting underage prostitutes.”

The Justice Department detailed some of the information gathered about the prostitution claims against Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, and Melgen, who was born in the Dominican Republic.

“Some eyewitnesses described a party attended by defendant Melgen in Casa de Campo — where defendant Melgen has a home and where defendant Menendez often visited — involving prostitutes,” prosecutors wrote in the filing.

“Furthermore, defendant Melgen has flown numerous young women from the United States and from other countries on his private jet to the Dominican Republic,” they wrote. “Indeed, one of defendant Melgen’s pilots described ‘young girls’ who ‘look[ed] like escorts’ traveling at various times on defendant Melgen’s private jet.”

Mendendez’s office lambasted the Justice Department’s filing, saying its response amounted to scurrilous attacks on the senator.

“There is not a single shred of evidence to corroborate any allegation that the senator was involved with prostitution — of any age, at any time — and the government knows it,” Menendez’s spokeswoman, Patricia Enright, told the Miami Herald. “Corroboration is not credibility and allegations are not evidence.

“There is no reason for the government to provide a pages-long play by play of these already debunked salacious allegations other than to distract from real weaknesses in the case, which were laid out in detail by the senator's legal team.”

Menendez’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, and Melgen’s lawyers, Kirk Ogrosky and Matt Menchel, said in a statement that they will reply to the Justice Department’s position by next month’s deadline. “We stand behind the motions and remain confident that both defendants will be vindicated,” they said.

Some defense attorneys said they were astounded that the Justice Department would assert the sex-related allegations were “corroborated” — a legal term for proof or truth.

Prominent South Florida criminal defense attorney David O. Markus said the government’s filing was “outrageous.”

“Realizing it got caught with its pants down, the government doubles down on the salacious — and false — accusations about underage prostitution by repeating them,” Markus said.

“It later acknowledges that there are no such charges as they were refuted and not even presented to the grand jury,” Markus said. “Why then repeat them as legitimate except to smear and taint the defendants.

“By resorting to high-end name-calling, the government’s response exposes the weaknesses in its entire case.”

But Joseph A. DeMaria, a former Department of Justice organized crime prosecutor, was not surprised by the government’s response.

“When a defendant accuses the government of misconduct, the response typically lays out all of the damning evidence that the government has collected,” said DeMaria, an attorney based in Miami. “That is why attacking the government in this way can be very risky.”

DeMaria also said the word “corroboration” has different meanings in criminal law.

“Corroboration at the investigation stage is a much lower standard than at the indictment stage,” he said. “While the government could have been more careful in its use of the word corroboration in its response, the federal court will understand the context.”

The federal investigation of Menendez and Melgen began three years ago when a mysterious tipster whose true identity has not been disclosed tipped off the FBI about allegations of sex parties with underage girls at the doctor’s resort home in Casa de Campo.

Melgen first was linked to Menendez just before the November 2012 elections, when the conservative Daily Caller website interviewed two alleged prostitutes who said they had relations with the New Jersey Democrat at Melgen’s Dominican Republic mansion in Casa de Campo. After he was reelected, the news died down.

But then, days before Menendez was about to start leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as chairman, reporters started receiving a 58-page dossier of emails between a Miami FBI agent and “Peter Williams,” the tipster who claimed that some of the prostitutes had been underage.

In 2013, a Miami federal grand jury was convened to consider allegations that Melgen had arranged encounters with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic while he and Menendez stayed at the doctor’s seaside estate. The purported prostitutes quickly recanted their original stories alleging the trysts. And the Miami grand jury did not consider any charges.