At the beginning of 2013, when news broke of an FBI investigation into allegations that Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., had patronized Dominican prostitutes and exchanged political favors for gifts from a donor, many observers thought the swirling perceptions of scandal had the potential to end Menendez's long political career.
Roughly four months later, the tables have turned: While the corruption investigation into Menendez and the donor remains open, the FBI has turned up no evidence to corroborate the prostitution claims. And now the FBI's inquiry is focused on who might have tried to smear Menendez by fabricating the whole story, four people briefed on the investigation told the Washington Post.
The boomerang investigation has put several notable figures with ties to Menendez under the microscope, including a pair of South Florida sugar magnates, Alfonso and Jose Fanjul, who were recently questioned by a pair of FBI agents about whether they or any of their associates were involved in a plot to demolish the New Jersey Democrat, according to the Post. The Fanjul brothers were reported to have been unhappy with Menendez's vote last June to end sugar subsidies that benefitted their bottom line.
Alfonso Fanjul, nicknamed "Alfy," personally called Menendez in February to reassure him that he was not the source of the anonymous claims. During the call, according to the Post, Fanjul "spoke in a rush," telling Menendez that he and his brother thought the claims were dreadful and that he had no part in them.
Menendez responded tersely: "Thanks, Alfy. We'll see."
Another possible lead has focused on Menendez's role in pressuring the government of the Dominican Republican to honor a contract with a port security company owned by the Menendez donor involved in the scandal, South Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen.
Investigators have sought to interview a former CIA operative, Marty Martin, who worked for a rival company also bidding for the port security contract. The FBI, two people familiar with the matter told the Washington Post, tried to talk with Martin about the port deal and the possibility that the rivalry had spurred the anonymous allegations in an attempt to discredit Menendez and Melgen, but it is unclear whether investigators have been able to reach Martin.
Through the whole affair, Menendez has maintained his innocence, declaring that the prostitution allegations were unequivocally false and that, while he enjoyed and benefitted from Melgen's generosity as a friend, he did provide the doctor with any illegal political favors in return.
And now that investigators have broadened the inquiry to examine who provided the anonymous tips that kicked off the whole affair, Menendez has expressed his enthusiasm for getting to the bottom of the matter.
The senator's spokeswoman, Tricia Enright, told the Washington Post, "Whoever organized and carried out the false smear campaign against Senator Menendez appears to have broken the law, and as we have said from the beginning, we believe this matter should be fully investigated."