Sen. Robert Menendez said Monday that allegations that he engaged with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false "smears." He said he has done nothing wrong and that allegations otherwise are "totally unsubstantiated."
"It's amazing to me that anonymous, nameless, faceless individuals on a website can drive that type of story into the mainstream," Menendez, D-N.J., told reporters, his voice rising with anger. "But that's what they've done successfully. Now nobody can find them, no one ever met them, no one can talk to them, but that's where we're at."
"The bottom line is all of those smears are absolutely false," he added in his first public remarks since the allegations started spreading on Wednesday.
That was after the FBI conducted a search of the West Palm Beach offices of a Florida ophthalmologist who also was the senator's biggest political donor in his re-election campaign last year. A week before the November election, the Daily Caller reported that Menendez had used a business jet owned by Dr. Salomon Melgen to fly to the Dominican Republican for trysts with prostitutes. None of the allegations have been substantiated.
The events have engulfed Menendez, 59, just as he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succeeding former Sen. John Kerry, who resigned last week to become secretary of state. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating the case.
Separately, a prominent lawyer in the Dominican Republic on Monday denied hosting outings on his yacht involving Menendez and prostitutes. Attorney Vinicio Castillo Seman said in Santo Domingo that he would seek a criminal investigation into the source of the reports. He called the reports "absurd."
Castillo, the son of a presidential adviser and the brother of a member of the Dominican Republic Congress, said he has known Menendez for about 15 years but has never seen him with a prostitute.
"I have never seen him behave in any way that was not impeccable and dignified," Castillo said.
Menendez acknowledged to reporters that he flew on Melgen's private plane and failed, initially, to properly pay for trips. He told reporters he reimbursed some $58,500 from his personal funds after it "came to my attention."
"I was in a big travel schedule in 2010 as the chairman of the DSCC" — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — "plus my own campaign getting ready for the election cycle," Menendez said. "In the process of all of that it unfortunately fell through the cracks and our processes did not catch it."
Menendez's office last week acknowledged that the senator had reimbursed Melgen on Jan. 4. His office said Menendez's reimbursement was for the full cost of two flights on Melgen's plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010.
Menendez took a third flight — in May 2010 — on Melgen's plane for a DSCC fundraiser. The trip was reported to the Federal Election Commission as a $5,400 expenditure by the DSCC for the use of Melgen's plane.
It is unclear whether the FBI raid of Melgen's office was related to Menendez. Melgen is a native of the Dominican Republic but has lived in the U.S. since 1980. Menendez is of Cuban-American descent.
Some New Jersey Republicans filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee last fall after the Daily Caller's report. In response, Menendez's staffers searched records for trips by the senator and found the two additional trips that hadn't been reimbursed.
Menendez's office has said Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of the senator for many years. Last year, Melgen's practice gave $700,000 to Majority PAC, a super political action committee set up to fund Democratic candidates for Senate. Aided by Melgen's donation, the super PAC became the largest outside political committee contributing to Menendez's re-election, spending more than $582,000 on the senator's behalf, according to an analysis of federal election records.
Associated Press writer Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.