New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez interceded on behalf of an Ecuadorian woman who was banned from traveling to the U.S. because of allegations she had engaged in visa fraud.
The woman, Estafania Isaias, is the daughter of a fugitive from Ecuador convicted in absentia for bank fraud and whose relatives in Florida made significant campaign donations to the New Jersey Democrat's 2012 campaign and the Democratic Party.
Current and former U.S. government officials tell NBC 4 New York that Estefania Isaias was barred from traveling to the U.S. in 2007 because she allegedly lied on visa applications to bring immigrant women to the U.S. to work as maids at her parents’ mansion in Coral Gables, Fla.
U.S. officials alleged Estefania Isaias had falsely claimed the women were her personal business assistants. Sources familiar with the matter said U.S. consular officials in Ecuador categorized her alleged wrongdoing as a form of “human smuggling.”
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Estefania Isaias did not return repeated calls for comment.
After she was banned in 2007, Estefania Isaias was able to obtain numerous short-term waivers from the U.S. government, according to sources familiar with her case.
Those waivers allowed her in part to visit her father Roberto Isaias in Miami where he lives and runs several businesses. Roberto Isaias is a fugitive banker fighting extradition to Ecuador, where he was convicted in absentia for allegedly embezzling millions from the Filanbanco bank he once helped run.
In 2011, current and former officials said, the U.S. Consulate decided there should be no more waivers for Estefania Isaias. They had grown increasingly concerned about allegations of visa fraud by Estefania and other wrongdoing by her family, sources familiar with the case said.
The Isaias family turned to Sen. Robert Menendez for help, sources said.
Around that time, Isaias family members in Florida made campaign donations: more than $11,000 to Senator Menendez’s 2012 campaign, and more than $125,000 to the Obama Victory Fund and the Democratic National Committee.
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Current and former officials say Menendez and his staff started making repeated phone calls, sending emails and writing letters to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her former chief of staff Cheryl Mills.
In one letter, Senator Menendez wrote to Secretary Clinton “in support of” Estefania Isaias's efforts to get a waiver, saying she should be allowed to come and work in the U.S.
Menendez told Clinton he was “personally aware of Ms. Isaias’ circumstances” adding he believed she would “comply with all legal requirements.”
In 2012, after Menendez contacted Clinton's office, the State Department recommended that the Department of Homeland Security approve the visa waiver -- and it did, overruling the decision made by U.S. consular officials in Ecuador.
In the first six months of 2012, Estefania’s mother donated more than $105,000 to the Democratic party.
NBC 4 New York showed former U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Linda Jewell what we found. The ambassador said such efforts by a senator on behalf of a foreign national, especially one accused of visa fraud, “..would be quite unusual, especially for an applicant who is not a constituent of the member of Congress.”
The current U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador, Adam E. Namm, said he could not discuss specific visa cases including the Isaias case. He also said he was not in a position to know or discuss contacts Menendez made with Clinton's office.
Ambassador Namm said that decisions to ban a traveler or grant a waiver are based on the law and that campaign donations play no role in visa decisions made in Ecuador by U.S. consular officials.
“Our consular officers overseas follow those laws and are not subject to influence,” Namm said.
Hillary Clinton and her former chief of staff Cheryl Mills declined requests to be interviewed about the Isaias visa matter.
In a statement, a spokesman for Clinton and Mills said: “There are rigorous processes in place for matters such as these and they were followed. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Jan Brown, Chair of the New York State Bar Immigration Committee, said foreign nationals accused of crimes can be granted waivers to travel to the U.S. but in his 35 years of practicing immigration law he said he has not seen this kind of interest by top officials in this kind of visa dispute.
“It is either what a lucky coincidence for the campaign contributor or it can be concluded that that’s impropriety,” Brown said.
Menendez previously has said he helped the family in part because he believed they were being wrongly persecuted by Ecuador’s government.
Regarding the Isaias visa case, Menendez Communications Director Tricia Enright told NBC 4 New York that unnamed sources are again "peddling garbage to smear the senator," adding that campaign cash played no role in this case.
"In this case, our office believed Ms. Isaias was wrongly denied approval of a waiver allowing her to work in the US on her H1-B visa , a waiver she had received six times before any engagement by our office,” Enright said.
Enright added the Senator was just one of several members of Congress who contacted the State Department, the U.S. Consulate in Ecuador and Homeland Security in asking for an independent review of Estefania Isaias’s visa case.
The senator’s spokesperson said his office handled this case "...no differently than we have thousands of other immigration-related requests over the years." He said any suggestion campaign cash compromised his beliefs "is just plain absurd."
Earlier this year some of Menendez’s letters and numerous staff emails to and from Secretary of State Clinton's office and the Isaias family were posted anonymously on a file sharing website. NBC 4 New York has not been able to independently verify all the documents. A Menendez spokesman confirmed several letters, but said of the many leaked emails ... “with near certainty that at least one is fabricated.” The Senator has said he has been the victim of an unfair smear campaign.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said it receives 100,000 inquiries from Congress each year about consular-related issues. “It’s not uncommon for these requests to be received through the office of the Secretary, and we give great attention to every congressional inquiry, reviewing each on its individual merits, no matter where it’s received,” said state department spokesman Alec Gerlach.
Reached by phone about his daughter’s visa case, Roberto Isaias said, "I am not going to talk to you. I can't imagine NBC gets involved in something like that. You're ridiculous, you know that."
Menendez is also one of several politicians who wrote letters on behalf of Roberto Isaias and his brother William in connection with their attempts to stay in Florida even though they have been sentenced in absentia to 8 years in prison in Ecuador.
The brothers deny any wrongdoing and say they are victims of political persecution by Ecuador’s government.
NBC 4 New York has previously reported that Menendez is being investigated in part for efforts he made for the Isaias brothers to obtain residency in the United States. Menendez denies wrongdoing in that effort, previously saying that Ecuador's justice system and political leaders have been unfair to the brothers.
The Justice Department is also looking into the senator's efforts on behalf of a Florida eye doctor who was seeking the senator’s help with certain business matters. The senator denies wrongdoing and later repaid the cost of trips he took on that doctor's private jet.
Ann Givens, Fred Mamoun, Evan Stulberger, Donna Mendell, Jon Sonnheim and Tom Winter contributed to this report.