By DAVID PORTER and GEOFF MULVIHILL, Associated Press
UNION CITY, N.J. (AP) — To his critics, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez is the bad guy who always wiggles away. To defenders, he's a respected figure persecuted in whispers and investigations.
The New Jersey Democrat finds himself in familiar territory as his office acknowledges he flew on a donor's plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010 — but says he did not engage in sex with prostitutes there, as a conservative website reported.
In his gritty, immigrant-heavy northern New Jersey hometown sometimes called "Havana on the Hudson," Menendez is revered as the Cuban-American who has risen the highest in politics and gets high marks for his work for the community.
Antonio Paz, who came to Union City from Cuba 58 years ago, said that he is a Republican with political views different from Menendez's, but that he respects the senator as a leader and is untroubled by the accusation about prostitutes.
"What's the matter?" he said. "In Europe, they give medals for that."
Others find the allegations incredible.
"Could this U.S. senator be so stupid or arrogant to engage in this type of action when he knows that everything he does will be scrutinized during his career?" said Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political scientist.
Menendez did not respond to a request by The Associated Press to comment for this article.
While Menendez, 59, has never been charged with a crime, there is no denying that he's often caught in ethical crosshairs.
The son of parents who came to New York from Cuba just before he was born, Menendez was a 19-year-old college student when he petitioned in 1973 to make the school board in Union City elected instead of appointed. At age 20, he was among the first elected to it.
He was a protégé of Mayor William Musto. But in 1982, when Menendez was the secretary for the city's Board of Education, he testified against Musto in a racketeering trial. Menendez was threatened and took to wearing a bulletproof vest, but his testimony helped convict the longtime powerbroker.
Still, Musto had the last laugh, winning re-election on the day after he was sentenced — against Menendez. A court later forced Musto from office.
Menendez was later elected mayor and to the state Legislature, and he won his first congressional election in 1992. Jon Corzine, who left the Senate in 2006 to become governor, selected Menendez to replace him in the Senate.
Menendez spent that year seeking a full term, and a federal investigation of him was a big part of the campaign.
The U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey, led at the time by Chris Christie, a Republican who is now a high-profile governor, was looking into a relationship between Menendez and the North Hudson Community Action Corp., an anti-poverty group.
The agency rented office space from Menendez at the same time he was helping it get federal funding as a member of Congress.
The case was closed in 2011 with no action by the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Pennsylvania, which had taken it over to avoid a potential conflict of interest raised by Menendez's nomination of Christie's eventual successor to the post.
At the time, Menendez said he was vindicated. And Christie, who made his name by going after political corruption, said he stood behind the timing of the investigation but declined to elaborate.
Other allegations surfaced during the 2006 campaign, involving a taped 1999 conversation in which a Menendez adviser allegedly used the senator's name to pressure someone to hire a doctor for local government work.
According to court documents, the doctor Menendez sought believed some of the money from the government contract would be kicked back to the senator. Menendez denied the allegations.
Investigators also looked into whether Menendez improperly steered lobbying business to a startup run by his former chief of staff, according to published reports in 2007.
Menendez last year contributed $18,800 in campaign funds to charity after donor Joseph Bigica admitted to making straw donations to candidates, in violation of federal election law. In that case, Menendez said he was the victim, not the perpetrator.
On Jan. 29, Bigica's brother, Benedetto, pleaded guilty to similar charges. Federal Election Commission records show he also donated $11,500 to Menendez's campaigns over the years, $2,600 of which was already returned.
In January, the senator's role in Washington grew as he became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and was a major player in a bipartisan Senate plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. He had just been re-elected in a race he won handily.
It was just before election time that the latest allegations started to brew.
The website the Daily Caller reported the senator had traveled on Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen's private plane to the Dominican Republic to engage in sex with prostitutes. Prostitution is legal in the Caribbean nation.
The website cited video-recorded interviews with two women who said they were prostitutes and were hired by the senator.
State Sen. Sam Thompson, a Republican from central New Jersey, said in an interview with the AP that someone had come to him with similar information — he wouldn't say who — and that he sent it to the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee to request an investigation.
Menendez, whose spokesman denied the prostitute allegations, repaid Melgen $58,500 for two 2010 trips he characterized as personal. The reimbursement was made Jan. 4 in response to the ethics complaint, but there was no public disclosure of it until this week. The reimbursement is significant for a politician who's not wealthy by Washington standards. Disclosure forms show Menendez's net worth as less than $700,000.
"There's not a question that he made violations here," Thompson said, noting the reimbursement. "Even though he's done it now, he's still in violation of the rules."
Thompson said he does not have substantiation about the prostitution allegations, but that investigators looking at Menendez anyway might as well see if there's anything to them.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington posted on its website a series of emails exchanged with a tipster about the trips in May 2012. In July, the group sent information to the FBI and the Department of Justice.
But in media interviews, the watchdog group's leaders expressed doubts about elements of the story because the tipster who reached the group by email was never willing to speak by phone or meet in person. The email address the tipster used was no longer active this week.
The issue gained steam this week when the FBI searched the West Palm Beach office of Melgen, who is a Menendez campaign donor. It hasn't been disclosed whether the raid was connected to Menendez.
Christie, who rarely has nice things to say about Menendez, in early January praised him in a news conference for his efforts to get federal aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy. At a campaign stop this week in East Newark, about 10 miles from Union City, the former federal prosecutor would not say what he makes of the latest allegations.
"I think the fact is, Sen. Menendez will deal with these issues as he sees fit moving forward, and the prosecutors who are investigating this matter will do that as well," Christie said. "And then we'll see where the chips fall."
Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield, N.J. Associated Press Writer Katie Zezima in East Newark contributed.
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