FALLS CHURCH, Va. Sandwiched between two doctors' offices at a roadside plaza is the headquarters of a small team of veteran Republican investigators, operating almost as a private detective squad, who since late last year have had a determined goal: bringing down Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
"We've never sent a Democrat to jail," said Ken Boehm, the chairman of the group, the National Legal and Policy Center, as he looked up from a table filled with his Menendez files and engaged in what was to him a bit of wishful thinking.
To Menendez and his staff, the work going on at this suburban Washington office suite, paid for by donations from prominent Republicans nationwide, is proof that the news media frenzy focusing on his actions to help a Florida eye doctor is at least in part a political smear.
But the results have been troubling revelations. Those documented by the New York Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers involve serious accusations of favoritism by the senator.
In recent weeks, Menendez has acknowledged intervening with at least four federal agencies including the departments of State and Health and Human Services in ways that stood to benefit his friend and campaign contributor Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, who is under investigation by federal authorities for possible Medicare fraud.
But the way the investigation got started, at a minimum, illustrates the often-hidden role that partisan players have in helping push major news media outlets to dig into ethical allegations lodged against sitting members of Congress.
The inquiry began with an incendiary tip unproven and vehemently disputed by Menendez that Melgen had helped procure prostitutes, some of them underage, for Menendez, after flying the senator repeatedly on his private plane to the Dominican Republic, where Melgen has a home at a seaside resort. This information was put forward by an array of self-interested characters, including the right-leaning website the Daily Caller and someone his identity remains a mystery who claimed to be an American citizen who frequented the Dominican Republic.
The combination of allegations of misuse of public office and of sexual misconduct helped propel the story into the headlines and onto television.
Menendez, who just won his second Senate term and just took over as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, making him one of Washington's most important foreign-policy players, sees evidence of a conspiracy.
"It is no coincidence that it was being peddled before the election," said Menendez, who has declined requests for an interview, during an appearance in New Jersey on Feb. 9. "No coincidence that it gets peddled again as I assume the chairmanship, no coincidence that we have someone who never's willing to meet anyone in the press or otherwise never is willing to speak to anybody on the phone, that uses a pseudonym and never shows their face."
Behind the accusations
The background story of how the accusations were initially made has all the makings of a Hollywood political thriller, even snaring the FBI in the process. It began in April, when an unsolicited email was sent to a left-leaning group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which in a way is the liberal counterpart to Boehm's group.
"My duty as a U.S. citizen obligates me to report what I consider to be a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow," said the first sentence of the email, sent by a person who identified himself as Peter Williams. The email, and others that followed, then went on to detail claims related to Menendez and the underage prostitutes, as well as decadent outings on a yacht.
But there was something immediately suspicious about Williams, said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility, which is based in Washington.
Williams provided some accurate details about Melgen's life in the Dominican Republic but would not agree to speak by phone, and he also said he had been aware of Menendez's activities since 2008 but was only now coming forward. That, Sloan observed, was seven months before Menendez faced re-election.
Pete Williams is the nickname of former Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr., D-N.J.; in 1983, he became the first senator jailed in 80 years, for his role in the so-called Abscam case, in which agents posing as Arab sheiks offered bribes to members of Congress. Perhaps in adopting that name, the person who sent the email about Menendez was making a cruel joke.
Convinced that Williams might be a fraud but concerned about the seriousness of the accusations Sloan in July turned over 56 pages of email to the FBI, which almost immediately assigned to the matter an investigator from its Miami office who specialized in the sexual exploitation of children.
Williams refused to meet with the FBI agent, but he did provide federal investigators with details about the women said to be involved, in a series of emails that continued through much of the rest of last year.
The best evidence suggesting that the original tip had a political element emerged in the fall.
With the 2012 election weeks away and no public action taken by Sloan's group or by the FBI someone brought the material to the Daily Caller, the conservative website. David Martosko, the site's executive editor, would not say in an interview last week who had contacted the site.
But the Daily Caller rushed to arrange video interviews with two women claiming to be prostitutes involved with Menendez and to post the story on the Internet. The timing hurt its efforts at exposure, however, as Hurricane Sandy had just hit. The Daily Caller tried to increase coverage by letting the Drudge Report break the news, which the Caller posted on Nov. 1.
Major newspapers, including the Times, did not report on the accusations related to the prostitution claims, concluding they were not sufficiently substantiated. But the nudging only continued.
In mid-January, after Menendez was re-elected, someone posted the entire email conversation between Williams and the FBI agent, Regino E. Chavez, on an Internet site, disclosing to the public that there had been at least an initial inquiry by law enforcement authorities into the matter. Whoever set up this site arranged it so that his or her identity could not be easily traced.
A Republican Party county organization from New Jersey then gave it another nudge, filing an ethics complaint against Menendez based on extensive research of flight manifests that allow it to conclude the senator had improperly flown on Melgen's private plane.
Boehm, 63, an ex-county prosecutor and a former Capitol Hill aide to Christopher H. Smith, a prominent Republican New Jersey representative, also decided to dive in. Boehm is a master of poring over court records and other public filings to find questionable links between politicians and their patrons. His targets are almost always Democrats.
He turned up evidence that Menendez had intervened with officials at the Commerce and State departments to ask them to help force the government in the Dominican Republic to honor a contract held by a company Melgen owns to help conduct security inspections at seaports there, information Boehm provided to the Times.
He also found that a business Melgen owned had contributed $700,000 to a Democratic political action committee that helped finance Menendez's re-election bid last year.
Menendez himself added some corroboration: he reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for two flights to the Dominican Republic that he had taken aboard his private jet in 2010 but had not properly paid for. When the FBI raided Melgen's offices in Florida last month, the story nearly nine months after the first tip became a media firestorm.
The American Future Fund has set up a website mocking Menendez and suggesting he should step down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez has rejected that call, returning frequently to his claim that he is the victim of a professional smear campaign.