Menendez denies prostitution allegations, addresses flights

NJ Sen. Robert Menendez employed as an unpaid intern in his Senate office an illegal immigrant and registered sex offender who has now been arrested by immigration authorities, The Associated Press has learned. The Homeland Security Department instructed federal agents to wait weeks and not to arrest him until after Election Day, a U.S. official involved in the case told the AP. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez fiercely denied allegations linking him to prostitutes today in his first extended comments to reporters since the accusations broke into widespread circulation last week.

He called the unconfirmed allegations “smears that right wing blogs have been pushing since the election” labeling them “totally unsubstantiated,” in an on-camera interview with CNN.

“It’s amazing to me that anonymous, nameless, faceless, individuals on a Web site can drive that type of story into the mainstream but that’s what they’ve done successfully,” Menendez, a Democrat, told CNN. “Now nobody can find them, no one ever met them, no one ever talked to them but that’s where we’re at. The bottom line is all of those smears are absolutely false.”

Menendez’s comments to CNN and a handful of reporters in Washington echo earlier statements that have come from his office, but he has not personally stopped to answer questions since the story about the prostitutes, and potential ethics violations involving travel on a donor’s plane, surfaced last week. Last Thursday he briskly walked away from reporters firing questions at him after an event in Washington.

Monday, he said two unpaid-for flights provided by Salomon Melgen, a South Florida friend and campaign donor, were an “oversight.”

At the time of the flights, in 2010, Menendez was chairman of the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm and said he had a very busy travel schedule.

“In the process of all of that it unfortunately fell through the cracks,” he told CNN. “When it came to my attention that payment had not taken place, I personally paid for them in order to meet my obligation.”

He paid the $58,500 in January, more than two years after taking the trips and months after Republicans had filed an ethics complaint about the issue.

“If it had come to my attention before, I would have in fact done it before. When it came to my attention, I did what was right,” Menendez said. Asked about waiting until a complaint was filed, he said, “When it came to my attention, I had paid for it.”

The explosive allegations that Menendez engaged with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, including some said to be underage, began on the conservative Web site the Daily Caller and gained steam with allegations posted anonymously on a Web site. The source of those allegations, an e-mailer going by the name Peter Williams, has forwarded his accusations to a Washington ethics group, ABC News and the FBI but rebuffed all requests by ABC and the ethics organization to meet in person or talk by phone to discuss his claims. The e-mails posted on the anonymously owned Web site show that the tipster also refused months of requests to meet with the FBI.

Mainstream news outlets did not write about the prostitution allegations until the FBI last week raided Melgen's offices in South Florida.

Menenedez has also pushed U.S. officials to intervene on Melgen’s behalf in a business dispute in the Dominican, raising more questions about their relationship. Off camera Menendez said he was doing what he thought was best for U.S. policy, CNN reported.

The Senate ethics committee is looking into the issue.

While the prostitution story has garnered the most headlines, the ethics complaints are the allegations that have confirmed facts behind them, and that, at this point, appear to pose the most trouble for Menendez.