A saga over prostitution allegations against a powerful U.S. senator and the media outlet that first reported them just got another major twist.
The Washington Post reported Monday night that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has asked the Justice Department to investigate intelligence indicating that the Cuban government planted the allegations in U.S. and Latin American media outlets, bringing the scandal back into the spotlight more than a year after it appeared to have burned out.
Understandably, it can be difficult to keep all of it straight. So here’s a guide to the players involved in the debunked allegations that Menendez paid underage women for sex in the Dominican Republic, a story first published by the Daily Caller just days ahead of the New Jersey Democrat’s 2012 reelection.
When the prostitution allegations surfaced in November 2012, Menendez was poised for re-election and to ascend to the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The senator, who is Cuban-American, is a staunch critic of the Castro regime and fiercely opposes easing tensions with Havana.
As of May 2013, the FBI was investigating a tipster’s claims that Menendez patronized prostitutes at a donor’s home in the Dominican Republic. Investigators found no evidence corroborating those claims, however, and were looking into whether someone set out to smear the senator while he was running for re-election. For his part, Menendez has strongly denied the allegations.
A separate federal investigation into the donor and his relationship with Menendez reportedly continues.
The most mysterious figure in the saga is a shadowy tipster who went by the name “Peter Williams.” He was peddling the Menendez prostitution claims as early as April 2012. Claiming that he had information to prove Menendez participated in “inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes while on vacations in the Dominican Republic,” Williams apparently reached out to ABC News, the FBI, and the watchdog group Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington with names, addresses, and phone numbers of sources who he said would back up his claims.
So little is known about Williams that even his name is believed to be a pseudonym. The name echoes a former U.S. senator from New Jersey, the late Harrison “Pete” Williams Jr., who was convicted in 1981 for bribery and conspiracy in the blockbuster Abscam scandal.
A Dominican lawyer by the name of Melanio Figueroa claimed to have facilitated interviews between several news outlets and the women who said Menendez paid them for sex. Those outlets included conservative website The Daily Caller, which first reported on the allegations.
Figueroa alleged that The Daily Caller, Univision, Telemundo, and CNN Español asked him to help find women who would lie and say they had been paid to have sex with the New Jersey Democrat. All of those news outlets denied Figueroa’s accusations, and The Daily Caller published a story disputing the attorney’s claims.
Figueroa claimed that a mysterious individual known only by the name “Carlos” had been involved in crafting the escort story. Figueroa said Carlos had offered him $5,000 to find women who would be willing to fabricate allegations about Menendez. Figueroa said Carlos claimed to work for the Daily Caller, although the publication said no one was sent to the Dominican Republic on its behalf.
In another twist, ABC News reported that “Carlos” appeared briefly on camera in the network’s own interviews with the alleged prostitutes. After ABC News published its story, The Daily Caller acknowledged that a man identifying himself as “Carlos” translated the interviews on which its original report was based. The Daily Caller said it did not compensate the man.
Nexis de los Santos
A woman identified as Nexis de los Santos gave a sworn statement in March 2013 stating that she had falsely alleged she had sex with Menendez for money. The woman’s attorney said de los Santos and a friend claimed they were approached by Figueroa and recited the accusations, which the attorney said were recorded on video without their consent.
ABC News identified the woman who recanted her allegations as Nexis de los Santos Santana and said she gave a different name, Michelle Rodriguez, when she spoke with the network before the 2012 election. The Daily Caller argued there was no evidence that de los Santos was one of the two women featured in its own reporting.
Matthew Boyle was credited as the main writer on the original article for The Daily Caller. After later moving on to Breitbart, Boyle published the contents of what he described as emails Peter Williams traded with the FBI. He also said he corresponded with Williams himself.
The Daily Caller’s executive editor at the time, David Martosko, took the Menendez story over from Boyle. Amid all the confusion created by Figueroa’s conflicting statements on his involvement in the escort story, Martosko stood by the conservative website’s version of events and said that the publication verified the story when it initially ran.
The Daily Caller’s editor-in-chief Tucker Carlson told the Washington Post that it would be hard to verify whether his staff published a story that originated with the Cuban government.
The Post had sparred with The Daily Caller in early 2013 after the newspaper reported that a woman who claimed to have sex with Menendez for money recanted her statement. After the Post reported on Figueroa’s allegations against the website, Carlson blasted the Post’s reporting as “embarrassing,” “crackpot stuff.”
CREW’s Melanie Sloan and Carrie Levine
Peter Williams began contacting Carrie Levine, the research director at the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in April 2012. A few months later, CREW sent its information to the Justice Department and FBI, asking for an investigation. The organization’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, told TPM last year that she was skeptical of Williams and the information he provided. But when Williams began describing the prostitutes as “underage,” she said the organization felt it had to act. The case snowballed after that, and CREW published its correspondence with Williams and the Justice Department online in January 2013.
Dr. Salomon Melgen
Melgan is a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist and Menendez donor whose ties to the senator have come under scrutiny. Peter Williams, the pseudonymous tipster, alleged that it was Melgen who provided Menendez with prostitutes while the senator was on vacation in the Dominican Republic.
Separately from the escort story, a federal grand jury was reportedly investigating whether Menendez used his office to advocate for Melgen’s business interests. Menendez had caught the attention of the Senate Ethics Committee when he reimbursed Melgen for two flights to the Dominican Republic aboard his private jet after initially failing to report them. Melgen also acknowledged that he and Menendez discussed a Medicare-billing dispute and a port contract in the Dominican Republic benefitting Melgen’s company.
Catherine Thompson is a senior editor for Talking Points Memo in New York City. She came to the site in 2013 and reported on national affairs. Previously, she worked as a research assistant to investigative reporter Wayne Barrett. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.