The federal corruption case against U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and his wealthy South Florida friend, eye doctor Salomon Melgen, has taken another twist — with defense lawyers calling allegations the men consorted with prostitutes nothing but tawdry fiction.
On Friday, defense lawyers asserted that an imprisoned former Puerto Rican senator lied to U.S. authorities that the physician had sex with prostitutes during a party at the vacation home of a prominent businessman in the Dominican Republic.
Jorge De Castro Font — the former Senate majority leader in Puerto Rico who in 2011 was sentenced to five years in prison on bribery charges — told FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors that Melgen consorted with prostitutes at the resort home of businessman Miguel Cabral seven years ago.
The defense lawyers accused prosecutors of improperly using the incarcerated felon's accusations to smear their clients, while they strongly disputed the government’s claim of having “corroborated allegations that defendants Menendez and Melgen had sex with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.”
Federal prosecutors in Miami, who initially reviewed the salacious sex-related allegations lodged against the pair by an unknown tipster, 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 momentum 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 at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic.
The legal defense team fired back this week, accusing Justice Department prosecutors of misconduct, including 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.
The defense team is seeking to dismiss the government’s indictment, saying it is based on “tainted” evidence. Lawyers for Menendez and Melgen pointed out that after De Castro Font spoke with prosecutors and agents in May 2013, they traveled four months later to Puerto Rico to interview Cabral, the owner of American Parking System, who also has a Casa de Campo home.
According to his statement filed in federal court, authorities did not specifically ask Cabral about De Castro Font’s accusation that Melgen had sex with prostitutes during a party at his home in 2007 — or even whether he hosted the gathering and whether the physician was present.
“When asked whether Melgen spends time with prostitutes, Cabral said that he has never seen Melgen with a prostitute,” according to a summary of his September 2013 statement to the FBI and prosecutors. “However, Cabral pointed out that Melgen’s girlfriends are very young and beautiful, and he suspects that Melgen spends money on them.”
This week, Melgen’s defense attorneys, Kirk Ogrosky and Matt Menchel, obtained a declaration from Cabral, who said he has known the physician for more than 12 years and considers him a friend.
“During the time I have known Dr. Melgen, I have never seen Dr. Melgen in the company of a prostitute of any kind and I informed the government of this fact during my interview,” Cabral said in the declaration filed in federal court.
“It has come to my attention that the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in federal court in New Jersey attaching material that they claim corroborates the notion that Dr. Melgen ‘partook’ in the services of prostitutes at my house,” Cabral said. “This statement is absolutely false and without merit.
“Dr. Melgen has never attended any function in my house where prostitutes were present and he has never engaged in any inappropriate or sexual conduct of any type in my house.”
In an earlier court filing this summer, prosecutors cited numerous witnesses' grand jury testimonies and statements to the FBI, but those documents were sealed in the court record.
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 61-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, and Melgen, also 61, 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, without mentioning De Castro Font as one of the “eyewitnesses.”
“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 assertions amounted to scurrilous attacks on the senator.