Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey. (Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a key player in the effort to overhaul immigration laws, denied allegations that he consorted with prostitutes during trips to the Dominican Republic with a longtime friend and campaign donor whose South Florida office was raided by the FBI.
FBI agents carted away records from the West Palm Beach office of Dr. Salomon Melgen, an ophthalmologist, on Tuesday night. A federal law enforcement official said Melgen was “one of their targets” in an investigation into healthcare fraud by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami.
The FBI declined to say Wednesday whether it was investigating Menendez, a Democrat who was reelected last year to his second Senate term.
Menendez is one of eight senators -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- who unveiled proposals Monday for sweeping changes to immigration laws, including a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He is on tap to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In a statement issued by his office Wednesday, Menendez described Melgen as a “friend and political supporter … for many years,” and said he had traveled on Melgen’s plane on three occasions, “all of which have been paid for and reported appropriately.”
The statement added, “Any allegations of engaging with prostitutes are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false.”
The allegations were first published last fall by the Daily Caller, a conservative website, and were based on emails from a Yahoo account.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, obtained the emails last April. Melanie Sloan, executive director of the group, said her staff could not verify the information, and the sender of the emails, who called himself Peter Williams, never agreed to meet or talk on the phone.
In July, Sloan forwarded the emails to the FBI and the Justice Department.
“I’m still withholding judgment on what really happened,” Sloan said Wednesday.
A Miami-based FBI agent corresponded with Williams, according to emails published on a separate website. Reached on his cellphone Wednesday, the FBI agent declined to comment.
Melgen and his wife have contributed $427,000 to political candidates and campaigns since 1992, including $33,700 to benefit Menendez, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Melgen owns a $2.3-million home and a Canadair CL-600 Challenger corporate jet that has made frequent trips to the Dominican Republic, even as he has tangled with the Internal Revenue Service. Last May, the IRS filed an $11.1-million lien for back taxes, according to Florida court records.
Maloy Moore in Los Angeles contributed to this report.