WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. Robert Menendez said Tuesday that he has asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the Cuban government had a role in allegations against him that have made him a target of a federal probe.
Among the charges are so far unsubstantiated allegations that Menendez, D-N.J., flew on a plane provided by a friend and campaign supporter, wealthy Florida ophthalmologist Dr. Salomon Melgen, for rendezvous with prostitutes.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Menendez said his attorney has asked the Justice Department to investigate what he says were long-running rumors about a Cuban role in the allegations.
The lawmaker said he doesn't know if Cuba was involved. But Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cited his decades-long role as a persistent critic of the Cuban government as potential motivation for Havana to act against him.
"To the extent they'd like to see the United States engage them more on their terms, which is not to observe democracy and human rights, they probably feel that I'm the single most significant impediment to their goals," Menendez said.
He added, "It would not be surprising at all for the regime to hold the view that we have to do whatever we can" against him.
Menendez cited a Tuesday report in The Washington Post that the CIA obtained evidence linking Cuban agents to the claims about Menendez and prostitutes and to trying to persuade American news organizations to pursue those claims.
While declining to provide details about his attorney's letter, Menendez said, "It is clearly to ask them to investigate the charges, some of which appeared in the Post."
Menendez said the Post story makes clear that the federal government has information about the Cuban connection. Initial reports of Menendez's problems surfaced before his 2012 re-election.
"They should pursue their information," he said about the federal government, "because I think it is incredibly troublesome that a foreign government would try to interfere either with a federal election or the seating of a senator on a specific committee in order to pursue its foreign policy goals. And that should be troublesome far beyond my circumstances."
Officials in Havana did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The government-run news and opinion website Cubadebate published an article Tuesday titled, "Bob Menendez tries to wash his dirty laundry with Cuba."
The article accused the senator of trying to make up for his own shortcomings by blaming Cuba, "an old recourse used by counterrevolutionary politicians of Cuban origin."
The Cubadebate article also noted that the initial allegations against Menendez surfaced in The Daily Caller, "a conservative website with no link to Cuba whatsoever."
The Post report Tuesday suggested that Cuban intelligence agents may have played a role in spreading the allegations that Menendez and Melgen had consorted with prostitutes during visits to the Dominican Republic. The Post said a U.S. intelligence report detailed Internet addresses and other evidence that linked Cuban intelligence agents to efforts to plant the allegations in U.S. media.
Several women in the Dominican Republic who initially claimed to have provided video accounts of their meetings with Menendez and Melgen later denied the stories and said they had been paid to concoct their accounts. A Dominican Republic police investigation later turned up a local lawyer who said he was promised $5,000 by a mysterious figure known only as "Carlos," who has yet to be identified.
A second elusive figure who called himself "Peter Williams" helped to spread the allegations against Menendez and Melgen, sending emails to both the FBI and the government reform group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in April 2012, asking for government investigations into the prostitution allegations.
CREW officials later referred its contacts with Williams to the FBI and the Justice Department.
FBI agents reportedly followed up on the reports in the Miami area as well as the Dominican Republic. The Post also reported that a Miami grand jury was investigating Menendez for allegedly advocating for Melgen's business interests. Menendez has acknowledged that his office twice contacted Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, urging them to change what he called an unfair payment policy that had cost Melgen $8.9 million.
Melgen, a major Democratic contributor, was recently identified by federal health officials as receiving more than $21 million in Medicaid funds in 2012 — the most awarded to a single physician in the U.S.
Menendez also paid $58,000 in reimbursements after failing to acknowledge two flights on Melgen's private jet to the Dominican Republic. Menendez' office conceded sending several emails in early 2013 to the Homeland Security Department questioning possible U.S. donations of port security equipment to the Dominican Republic — at a time when a Melgen-owned company was trying to secure a contract to provide similar services.
Menendez has denied any wrongdoing.