FBI agents late Tuesday night 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, D-N.J. -- who has denied what he calls the "fallacious allegations."
Agents gathered at the medical-office complex of Dr. Salomon Melgen, a contributor to Menendez and other prominent politicians, to start hauling away potential evidence in several vans.
The investigation is believed to be focusing on Melgen's finances and the allegations about Menendez's trips and contact with prostitutes. A spokesman for Menendez could not be reached for comment, nor could Melgen.
Melgen has an outstanding IRS lien of $11.1 million for taxes owed from 2006 to 2009, according to records filed with the Palm Beach County recorder's office. A previous IRS lien for $6.2 million was released in 2011.
Despite those financial problems, Melgen and his family have contributed at least $357,000 to candidates and committees since 1998, according to Florida and federal campaign records. Of that, the Melgens have contributed about 9 percent to Menendez's federal campaigns.
Melgen also owns a private CL-600 Challenger plane through one of his West Palm Beach-based companies, and frequently flies between South Florida and Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, where he is from.
Menendez has flown on the plane at least once, his office has said, when he was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2009 to 2011, when the Melgens contributed about $60,400 to the group. A spokeswoman had previously said that Menendez and Melgen are longtime friends and said the senator did nothing improper.
Melgen was first linked to Menendez just before the November elections, when the conservative Daily Caller website interviewed two alleged prostitutes who said they had relations with the New Jersey Democrat at Melgen's Dominican Republic mansion in Casa de Campo.
After the election, the news died down.
But then, days before Menendez was about to start leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as chairman, reporters started receiving a 58-page dossier of emails between a Miami FBI agent and a tipster who claimed that some of the prostitutes had been underage.
"I'm not going to respond to the fallacious allegations of your story," Menendez told the Daily Caller on Monday when a reporter caught up with him on a train in Washington.
At the time, Menendez had just stepped into the national spotlight along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and six other senators who are hammering out a highly watched immigration plan that is the talk of Washington.
Rubio is one of the few big-name Florida politicians who has not received campaign money from the Melgens, who have contributed to Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Garcia, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, among others.
The FBI would not comment on the emails, and the agent, Regino Chavez, did not return calls or emails. But sources familiar with the investigation told The Miami Herald that the emails are real.
The emails from agent Chavez show that he tried to find out what happened. But the tipster, who went by the name "Peter Williams," refused to talk to him by telephone or meet him face to face.
Chavez contacted the tipster Aug.1, 2012, after the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington referred the case to the FBI. The tipster would not meet or speak by phone to CREW or to an investigative reporter, either.
"As far as the information you have provided, we have been able to confirm most of it," Chavez wrote on Sept. 12. "We know that you are providing accurate information."
But it is not clear what that specific information is because Chavez was unable to interview the alleged prostitutes. Over the months, Chavez tried to meet or speak with the tipster, but had no luck.
Then, on Nov. 1, the agent wrote the tipster again and drew attention to the Daily Caller interview with the alleged prostitutes.
"I think we are at the point where you and I need to communicate over the phone so that we can move faster," he wrote.
Amid the suspicious circumstances of the complaints, Democrats have tried to characterize the reports about Menendez and Melgen as a right-wing smear job.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid refused to comment on the possibility of an FBI investigation when he was asked Tuesday about the case.
Said Reid: "Always consider the source. All anyone here has to look at is the source where this comes from."
Tuesday night's raid, however, shows that there is at least an investigation tied to Menendez's longtime friend and ally.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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