The scandal surrounding Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) roared back to life late Monday evening with a new report from the Washington Post in which the senator’s attorney accuses the Cuban government of planting negative stories about him in American media.
But the story also notes that “according to two people familiar with the investigation,” law enforcement officials including “the Justice Department’s public-integrity section and FBI agents” are “actively pursuing” an inquiry into Menendez’s actions on behalf of a major donor and “eying possible charges.”
Citing one anonymous ex-intelligence community source and “a second person with close ties to Menendez who had been briefed on the matter,” the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig and Manuel Roig-Franzia reported U.S. intelligence officials “obtained credible evidence, including Internet protocol addresses, linking Cuban agents to the prostitution claims and to efforts to plant the story in U.S. and Latin American media.”
Menendez’s attorney Stephen M. Ryan, Leonnig and Roig-Franzia wrote, “asserts that the plot was timed to derail the political rise of Menendez.”
In November 2012, two women who described themselves as prostitutes said Menendez paid them for sex. Leonnig and Roig-Franzia wrote that when the story, by this reporter, was published, Menendez was running for reelection and “preparing to assume the powerful chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”
However, Menendez’s ascension to chairman was not certain at the time and came after former-Sen. John Kerry was tapped to become Secretary of State.
Leonnig and Roig-Franzia wrote that that Ryan sent a letter to the Justice Department in April asking officials to pursue the intelligence about Cuban involvement in the issue. The letter has not been made public, but Ryan did speak on the record to the Post.
“It is deeply disturbing that a foreign government whose intelligence service is an enemy of the United States might try to influence U.S. foreign policy by discrediting an elected official who is an opponent of the Cuban regime,” Ryan said, according to Leonnig and Roig-Franzia.
In discussions with a wide array of sources in reporting on the story, there were no indications that they were connected to or working for the Cuban government. Additionally, an anonymous tipster who called himself “Pete Williams,” whose identity remains unknown and the Post story says was actually the creation of Cuba’s Directorate of Intelligence, was not a source for the original story and never provided non-public information to this reporter.
Beyond the prostitution allegations, Menendez has come under criticism for intervening on behalf of Melgen in both Department of Health and Human Services and State Department matters.
Melgen allegedly broke vials of medication that fights macular degeneration into 3-4 doses, then charged Medicare anywhere $6,000 to $8,000 per vial–charging for Medicare for each dosage rather than by vial–when they are actually are supposed to be billed at about $2,000 per vial. Melgen has not denied doing so, but has defended the practice arguing it is within the bounds of the law.
Melgen’s billing practices sparked an HHS Inspector General investigation, and one former HHS investigator told the Washington Post that Melgen “thought he was untouchable” during an interview during which he kept referencing Sen. Menendez as “a character reference.”
In April, the New York Times reported Melgen was paid more money – $20.83 million — from Medicare than any other doctor in the United States in 2012.
“The doctor billed mostly for Lucentis, a medication used to treat macular degeneration made by a company that pays generous rebates to its doctors,” the Times’ Frances Robles wrote at the time.
At a July 2012 congressional hearing, Menendez also urged a State Department official to intervene with the Dominican Republic government on behalf of a Melgen-owned company, ICSSI. At stake in the dispute was a contract awarded to ICSSI potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
That revelation prompted the New York Times in February 2013 to call on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to strip Menendez’s chairmanship, noting Melgen had also donated $700,000 to a super PAC run by former Reid aides, at least until the matter was fully investigated. Reid ignored the Times’ call. Reid also traveled on Melgen’s private jet to Boston for a fundraiser.
“I have confidence he did nothing wrong,” Reid told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos at the time. Meanwhile, a photograph of Melgen with Obama a fundraiser was published by Politico, and donations that Melgen made to scores of other Democrats over the years–especially those aligned with the Clintons–had come under scrutiny.