When we last heard about the federal investigation of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the FBI was reportedly looking into whether someone had set out to smear the Democrat during his 2012 re-election campaign.
But according to a report Thursday from NBC’s New York City affiliate, a federal criminal investigation is still very much focused on Menendez himself, and has widened to include the senator’s efforts “on behalf of two fugitive bankers from Ecuador.”
The brothers, William and Roberto Isaias, left Ecuador more than a decade ago. In Ecuador, they ran Filanbanco, the county’s largest bank, until it and a number of other banks collapsed in the late 1990s. The Isaias brothers were later sentenced in absentia for embezzling millions of dollars during Filanbanco’s collapse. According to WNBC, federal investigators are looking at whether Menendez “crossed a line” in trying to help the brothers stay in the United States.
Citing “multiple officials,” WNBC reported that Menendez “wrote letters and made phone calls to the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department in support of the brothers.” In one case, he reportedly asked that the Department of Homeland Security “expedite its review” of the brothers’ case. Campaign finance records, meanwhile, show that relatives of the Isaias brothers gave more than $10,000 to Menendez’s 2012 campaign, while the family of one of the brothers gave at least another $100,000 to the Democratic Party. (As foreign nationals, the brothers cannot themselves make political contributions to federal candidates.) According to WNBC, investigators “want to know whether the senator attempted to influence immigration officials in 2012 in exchange for campaign donations.”
In reporting the story, WNBC spoke with a number of interested parties. A former U.S. ambassador to Ecuador told the station that the Isaias brothers’ presence in the U.S. has been “a constant concern between the U.S. and Ecuador since their flight.” The brothers’ lawyer maintained that his clients were innocent and the victims of political persecution. And a former special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Jersey office suggested that “most people would know and would believe that it be appropriate to keep your distance from individuals who are convicted of crimes in their homeland.”
In a statement to WNBC, a spokesperson for Menendez said the senator’s office was not aware of any investigation involving the Isaias brothers.
“Our office works each year with literally hundreds of individuals and families from across the country who are seeking help with the immigration process,” spokesperson Tricia Enright said. “We review each and every request we receive, and if we feel any inquiry is appropriate, we make it. […] In this particular case, Sen. Menendez believed the Isaias family had been politically persecuted in Ecuador, including through the confiscation of media outlets they owned which were critical of the government.”
Enright then offered a more defiant statement Thursday night to The Daily Beast.
“A year after a false smear campaign was launched against Sen. Menendez, once again we see anonymous sources making outlandish allegations,” she said.
In January 2013, the FBI raided the Miami offices of Dr. Salomon Melgen, reportedly as part of parallel investigations into potential Medicare fraud and the ophthalmologist/businessman/political donor’s relationship with Menendez. (A shadowy anonymous tipster helped publicize allegations about Menendez and Meglen’s relationship.) Following the raid, Menendez’s office announced that the senator had given Melgen a $58,000 check to reimburse him for two round-trip flights the Senator took on the doctor’s private jet in 2010. Menendez’s office called the delay in payment an “oversight.”