By PETE YOST
WASHINGTON — Sen. Robert Menendez’s office says he reimbursed a prominent Florida political donor $58,500 on Jan. 4 of this year for the full cost of two of three trips Menendez took on the donor’s plane to the Dominican Republic in 2010.
More details about the New Jersey senator’s trips emerged as his office said unsubstantiated allegations that the senator engaged in sex with prostitutes in the Dominican Republic are false.
There had been no public disclosure of the two trips until now.
"The senator paid for the two trips out of his personal account and no reporting requirements apply," Menendez spokeswoman Tricia Enright said Wednesday night.
The FBI searched the West Palm Beach, Fla., office of the donor — eye doctor Salomon Melgen — on Tuesday night and early Wednesday, but it was unclear if the raid was related to Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.
A third trip by Menendez aboard Melgen’s plane — a campaign fundraising journey to the donor’s residence in the Dominican Republic — took place in May 2010. That trip was reported to the Federal Election Commission as a $5,400 expenditure by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Menendez chaired. The trip, for fundraising from the community of Americans in the region, took Menendez to Puerto Rico as well as the Dominican Republic, said Menendez’s office. The $5,400 was paid to one of Melgen’s companies, Vitreo Retinal Consultants.
Menendez categorized the other two trips as personal. The first was Aug. 6-9, 2010, a round trip from South Florida to the Dominican Republic. The second was Sept. 3-6, 2010, from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back.
Menendez could have invoked what is known as a "friendship exemption" regarding the two personal trips, which would have required the senator to report the travel to the Senate Ethics Committee as a gift. Instead, Menendez chose to reimburse the full cost of the two trips.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., turned aside questions about Menendez at a news conference Thursday, saying they should be directed to the New Jersey Democrat instead. On Tuesday — before the disclosures about the FBI raid and the trips — he had expressed skepticism about the allegations, telling reporters to consider the source.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to answer when asked whether the president still has full faith and confidence in Menendez. "I don’t have anything for you on that," Carney told reporters Thursday.
The Daily Caller, a conservative website, reported shortly before the November election that Menendez traveled on Melgen’s private plane to the Dominican Republic to engage in sex with prostitutes. Some New Jersey Republicans filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee last fall in the wake of the allegations by The Caller. In response, Menendez’s staffers searched records for trips by the senator and found the two additional trips that hadn’t been reimbursed.
On Tuesday, Menendez became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, succeeding Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
At FBI headquarters in Washington, spokesman Jason Pack said the bureau "cannot comment on the existence or status of an investigation." Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler also declined to comment.
Records filed in Palm Beach County show an Internal Revenue Service lien against Melgen of more than $11.1 million for unpaid taxes from 2006-09. Prior liens for taxes from 1998 to 2002 were subsequently withdrawn, records show.
Menendez’s office said the accusations of engaging with prostitutes "are manufactured by a politically motivated right-wing blog and are false."
Menendez’s office said Melgen has been a friend and political supporter of the senator for many years and said the three trips Menendez took have been "paid for and reported appropriately." Menendez’s office later changed the statement’s wording to specify that the trips had been "paid for or reported appropriately," correcting the misimpression that all three trips had been publicly disclosed.
The Daily Caller began publishing stories about Menendez and Melgen on Nov. 1, when it reported that two women from the Dominican Republic said Menendez paid them for sex earlier in 2012. Prostitution is legal in the Caribbean nation.
Melgen is involved in numerous businesses, all sharing the same address in West Palm Beach, according to records filed with the Department of State in Florida.
Late Tuesday and early Wednesday, FBI agents were seen inside the West Palm Beach building, walking its halls and standing beside shelves full of files.
Melgen is listed as having an ownership interest in DRM Med Assist, which Federal Aviation Administration records show is the owner of a CL-600 Challenger plane. Flight records for the aircraft were not immediately available.
Melgen, a registered Democrat, has made $193,350 in political contributions since 1998, including $14,200 to Menendez, according to Federal Election Commission records. Menendez was chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, which raises money for Democratic Senate candidates, from 2009-11.
Menendez, a lawyer, is a former mayor of Union City, N.J., and also served in the New Jersey state General Assembly and the New Jersey state Senate. He is divorced and has two children.
Melgen, 58, is a native of the Dominican Republic, where he earned his medical degree from the Universidad Nacional Pedro Henríquez Ureña in 1978. He has lived in the U.S. since at least 1980, holding an internship, residency and fellowship at hospitals in Connecticut, Missouri and Massachusetts, according to records filed with the Florida Department of Health.
Melgen has been licensed to practice in Florida since 1986 and purchased the West Palm Beach plot of land where he built his main office in 1991. Over the years, Melgen has become regarded as a top ophthalmologist, speaking at conferences and even operating on then-Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997. The governor later appointed Melgen to a state panel on HMOs.
Calls to Melgen’s offices Wednesday were forwarded to an answering service where receptionists told callers to try back Thursday. Calls to Melgen’s home in North Palm Beach, which is appraised at $2.1 million, went unanswered.
On the website for his medical practice, Melgen writes: "I am always asked what sets me apart from most other doctors, and I would have to say that I do not consider myself to be a ‘cookbook’ physician. My patients are my number one priority, and when I am looking to treat a diagnosis I try to look at all the data at hand and extrapolate the best treatment instead of solely adhering to what the current ‘standard’ of treatment may be."
Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Fla., Curt Anderson in Miami and Jack Gillum and Larry Margasak in Washington contributed to this report.