How Much Trouble Is Senator Bob Menendez In?

The New Jerseyan is coming under scrutiny for his friendship with a Florida doctor -- and their allegedly scandalous dealings in the Dominican Republic.

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Reuters

Edwin Edwards -- bon vivant, convicted felon, three-time husband, and four-time Louisiana governor -- once cracked that he could only lose an election if he was "caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez faces some allegations that could test what exactly it would take to chase him out of office.

Back on November 1, then Daily Caller-reporter Matthew Boyle reported allegations by two unnamed women in the Dominican Republic, a popular sex-tourism destination where prostitution is legal, that Menendez paid to have sex with them. The story didn't go anywhere, partly because it was so close to the election and Menendez was already a prohibitive favorite for reelection -- he ended up beating his GOP challenger by nearly 20 percentage points -- and partly because the Daily Caller has a reputation for wildly overpromising on scoops and then underdelivering on facts. (Remember the video that was going to end Obama's campaign?) The article suggested there might be dirt, but nothing there that passed a smell test for serious news organizations.

Since then, though, reporters have had time to dig in, and it's become clear that something peculiar was afoot with Menendez's close relationship with a Florida doctor and political donor with whom he traveled twice to the Dominican Republic in 2010. That man, Dr. Salomen Melgen, is now the subject of an FBI investigation, the Miami Herald reports:

Stringing up crime scene tape and using a locksmith, the FBI on Tuesday and Wednesday raided the West Palm Beach business of an eye doctor suspected of providing free trips and even underage Dominican Republic prostitutes to U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez -- who has denied what he calls the "fallacious allegations."

The two men are old friends, the New York Times explains. Their relationship is both personal -- Melgen comforted Menendez when his mother died -- and monetary, with the doctor donating hundreds of thousands to the senator and other Democratic causes. Menendez, in turn, has reportedly used his influence to help Melgen out in business. The senator has now written a $58,000 check to reimburse Melgen for private-plane flights. "We can assume the Senate Ethics Committee is looking at the allegation," Menendez's spokesman said. 

But while five-figure reimbursements raise eyebrows, it's the more lurid allegations that make the story more explosive -- and pose the greater political danger. Menendez opened the floodgates to coverage by directly mentioning the prostitution charge in a denial, saying in a statement on Wednesday, "Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false."

Attacking the messenger may typically be a weak strategy, but it's not entirely unwarranted in this case. Boyle, who now works at Breitbart.com, has developed a reputation for juicy, scandalous stories that fall apart on closer inspection -- or sometimes, any inspection at all. He hyped a coup against John Boehner that flopped feebly, claiming to have advance knowledge that at least 17 people would vote against him for speaker (12 did), and in 2011 erroneously claimed that the EPA was planning hire 230,000 new "bureaucrats" -- a fantastic misreading of a Justice Department brief.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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