NEW YORK -– Two veteran New Jersey political reporters were approached by operatives with prostitution allegations against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) several months before they surfaced in a Nov. 1 report on The Daily Caller, the sourcing of which has been called into question this week.
The New York Post’s Josh Margolin and Newark-based Star-Ledger’s Ted Sherman were each contacted last summer with the claims that Menendez had sex with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic and investigated them, according to sources familiar with the matter. Neither reporter found enough credible evidence to publish a story based on the claims.
Whoever approached Margolin and Sherman knew what they were doing, given the reporters' experience covering political corruption in the Garden State. Margolin, who previously worked at the Star-Ledger, co-authored a 2011 book with Sherman titled, "The Jersey Sting: A True Story of Crooked Pols, Money-Laundering Rabbis, Black Market Kidneys, and the Informant Who Brought It All Down."
The New York Times reported last month that partisan forces helped push the prostitution allegations against Menendez, who has strenuously denied them. He did recently acknowledge accepting private jet flights to the Dominican Republic from wealthy political donor Dr. Salomon Melgen but has since reimbursed the flight costs.
While some conservatives may believe reporters are less willing to investigate Democratic politicians because of a so-called liberal media bias, recent history suggests otherwise. It was The New York Times that broke the news of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's involvement in a prostitution scandal. And in this case, at least three news organizations -- the Post, the Star-Ledger, and ABC -- followed up on claims against Menendez before deciding there wasn't any verifiable information that met the bar for publication.
Reporters often decline to discuss stories they pursued but never published, and neither journalist was willing to get into the details of their efforts. Margolin referred this reporter to Post metro editor Michelle Gotthelf, who declined to comment. Star-Ledger associate editor Tom Curran declined to comment as well.
The Star-Ledger acknowledged in a Wednesday editorial that an operative had approached the paper “in the days before November’s election,” but didn’t mention Sherman or state when exactly that occurred. The editorial board explained that the paper “didn’t print the allegation because it failed the smell test” and the “evidence was too flimsy.”
On Tuesday, ABC News revealed that it had conducted interviews with three women claiming to have had sex with Menendez for money, including one now telling Dominican authorities she was paid to provide a false account on video.
But the evidence didn’t meet ABC's threshold for publication, either. In its report, ABC noted that “Republican operatives, who insisted on anonymity, helped arrange the woman's appearance, along with two additional women, in back-to-back, on-line interviews with ABC News and a conservative news website, the Daily Caller.”
In explaining Wednesday why the network didn’t publish a story, ABC revealed that “none of the women could produce identity cards with their names, and they all provided the same story almost word for word, as if they had been coached.”
The Daily Caller, which defends its reporting, acknowledged Tuesday having planned to interview a third woman like ABC did but said “the laptop being used in the Dominican Republic ran out of battery life.”
The claims against Menendez were circulating at least six months before ABC and The Daily Caller interviewed the women. In April, Carrie Levine, research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, received an email from someone identifying themselves as Peter Williams, who claimed to have evidence that Menendez had engaged in "inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes" at a Dominican Republic estate owned by Melgen. CREW followed up because the claims involved underage prostitutes, not simply prostitution, which is legal in the Dominican Republic.
In early May, after going back-and-forth with “Peter Williams” over email, CREW contacted Brian Ross’ investigative unit at ABC News, with reporter Rhonda Schwartz joining the email chain. (CREW also sent a letter to the FBI and Department of Justice in July, requesting an investigation into potential criminal conduct.)
CREW executive director Melanie Sloan told The Huffington Post that her organization had worked with ABC News’ investigative unit before and believed that it, unlike CREW, would have the resources to travel down to the Dominican Republic to report. Also, Sloan said she “knew they wouldn’t air it if they didn’t have it because they’d have a huge lawsuit on their hands.”
“They diligently tried to pursue the story and when they couldn’t verify the allegations, they didn’t report it,” Sloan said. “ABC obviously has huge resources. It would have been a big story for them. I knew they would do everything they could do find out it was true.”
It’s unclear exactly how ABC News’ reporting developed between May and October and the reporters involved are not doing interviews at this time.
But in mid-October, people claiming to have firsthand knowledge of the prostitution claims contacted the network about doing video interviews with the alleged prostitutes, according to ABC sources. The Skype interviews took place on Oct. 31, the same day as interviews with the Daily Caller's Matthew Boyle, who now works at Breitbart News. The interviews took place less than a week before New Jersey voters went to the polls and reelected the senator.
Boyle told The Huffington Post on Friday that he did not know at the time that ABC News was also interviewing women claiming to have had sex with Menendez.
At 4:29 p.m. on Oct. 31, Boyle emailed Menendez press secretary Patricia Enright with an “urgent request” for comment under the subject heading: “Sen. Menendez frequenting prostitutes in Dominican Republic?”
Boyle told Enright that he had “very credible evidence” that Menendez “has sometime in the past in [sic] calendar year flown to the Dominican Republic and paid at least two prostitutes to have sex with him –- and he underpaid each of them by $400,” according to an email obtained by The Huffington Post. He informed Enright that he was running a story that night and had an 8:00 p.m. deadline.
The Drudge Report, which heavily promoted several Daily Caller and Breitbart stories during the 2012 election cycle, began hyping a potential scandal on the evening of Oct. 31 with teases such as, "SEX SCANDAL TO HIT CAMPAIGN… DEVELOPING…" and, "STORY SAID TO INVOLVE POWERFUL SENATOR, SOURCES TELL DRUDGE. DAILY CALLER PLANS LATE NIGHT RELEASE…"
The Daily Caller published its story on Nov. 1 at 1:46 a.m.