Cheat Sheet

02.02.13

Five Things to Know About the Robert Menendez Scandal

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez is facing two potentially career-threatening (and very complicated) scandals. Here’s your guide to the tangled web of prostitutes, interns, and Florida ophthalmologists.

Chances are you’ve heard the name Robert Menendez lately—or at least seen on the homepage of one of your favorite news sites or blogs. It’s clear that he’s in some kind of trouble, but trying to catch up on the multifaceted storyline at this point seems daunting. Take a deep breath. There is a lot going on with Menendez right now, and it is, indeed, confusing. Here’s what you should know.

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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference on an agreement for principles on comprehensive immigration reform framework at the Capitol, January 28, 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty )

1) Who is Robert Menendez and why are we talking about him?

Robert Menendez is a Democratic senator from New Jersey, appointed by John Corzine in 2006 to take over his seat after he was elected governor. You may have heard of him recently because he is slated to replace John Kerry as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. More likely, however, you’ve heard of Menendez recently because he has become the subject of not one but two potentially career-ruining scandals.

2) Did he have something to do with an intern?

Yes, scandal No. 1 involves 18-year-old Luis Abrahan Sanchez Zavaleta—an illegal Peruvian immigrant, registered sex offender, and former unpaid intern for Menendez’s 2012 Senate reelection campaign. Sanchez was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on December 6, 2012, but the Associated Press reported that ICE had planned to arrest him back on October 25 but was asked by the Department of Homeland Security to hold off till after the election. A DHS spokesman dismissed the report as “categorically false,” and Menendez’s office denied knowing anything about DHS’s alleged interference or the intern’s legal status.

3) What went down in the Dominican Republic?

That’s scandal No. 2. Back in early November—before the Sanchez case was reported but, more important, just days before the election—the Daily Caller, a conservative blog, reported that the divorced father of two had made several trips via private plane to the Dominican Republic for rendezvous with underage prostitutes, citing interviews with an anonymous Dominican Republic official and local women—also unidentified. Menendez’s office promptly denied the allegations and his reelection was unhampered.

The rumor resurfaced on January 24, when an anonymous blogger posted emails between the FBI and a tipster going by the name of Peter Williams. The emails referenced conversations Williams said he had with women in the Dominican Republic who said they attended sex parties with Menendez at a house and on a yacht both owned by Florida opthalmologist Salomon Melgen. Williams had initially emailed the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, which forwarded the emails to the FBI and to ABC News. On January 25, the Daily Caller ran a story on the leaked emails, prompting CREW to publish its correspondence with the tipster on its own website.

4) So who is Salomon Melgen?

Melgen is a south Florida opthalmologist who owns the yacht and home where Menendez’s alleged Dominican sex parties reportedly took place. He is also a longtime friend and donor of the senator’s and since last year has been the subject of an FBI investigation. Two years ago, Melgen bought an ownership stake in a company with a dormant contract with the Dominican Republic to provide border security; Menendez then urged officials to enforce the contract, worth about $500 million. Menendez also failed to report two round-trip flights to the Dominican Republic on board Melgen’s jet in 2010. Menendez reimbursed Melgen as required last month, his spokeswoman calling the matter an “oversight.”

5) How reliable are all these reports?

This story should be approached with extreme caution. By far the most important thing to know about Menendez’s dueling scandals is that hardly any of the information floating around is confirmed, nor has it been verified by sources who are willing to be named. As the FBI investigation continues, more concrete facts can be expected to surface, but at this point the most incriminating accusations against Menendez have come from tips—mostly anonymous—to blogs, at least one of which makes no effort to hide its political leanings. And the other, meanwhile, is starting to doubt its sources. "This unnamed source said he has had this information about Sen. Menendez as early as 2008, yet he didn't come forward until four years later, right before Sen. Menendez was up for reelection,"  CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, told CNN of the tipster responsible for the emails. "Further, this source refused to ever speak by phone to us, with other news organizations, or with the FBI, so those two facts combined to seriously undermine his credibility."

Editor's Note: Emails from Peter Williams were first published on an anonymous blog. A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the emails had first resurfaced on the website of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The article has been updated with the correct information.