The exoneration of Bob Menendez?

The salacious allegation at the root of his recent troubles seems to be evaporating before our eyes

Published March 5, 2013 12:37PM (EST)

Remember that story about Bob Menendez and the two prostitutes from the Dominican Republic that major news outlets were so hesitant to pursue? It turns out it was for good reason. One of the two women who initially claimed that Menendez paid for sexual acts has recanted. According to the Washington Post:

The woman said a local lawyer had approached her and a fellow escort and asked them to help frame Menendez and a top donor, Salomon Melgen, according to affidavits obtained by The Washington Post.

That lawyer has in turn identified a second Dominican lawyer who he said gave the woman a script and paid her to read the claims aloud. The first lawyer said he found out only later that the remarks would be videotaped and used against Menendez, the affidavits say.

As the Post tells it, the woman, 23-year-old Nexis de los Santos Santana, and a friend were told by the first lawyer that the false statements would be used in a divorce case. The women apparently didn’t know who Menendez was. This would seem to go a long way toward putting to rest whatever questions there are about Menendez and prostitutes – just as it raises some questions about how this whole episode became an episode to begin with.

The first story appeared at the Daily Caller just days before the November election. Writer Matthew Boyle anonymously quoted two prostitutes who claimed they’d had an encounter with Menendez around Easter last year at the Casa de Campo resort. The story suggested they were peeved that the senator had short-changed them on payment (“He lies. He says one thing, then does another”) and noted that when shown a photograph of Menendez they’d confirmed that it was the man they’d been with. The video, with the women’s faces blocked out, also appeared with the story.

The accusation was explosive and the timing was obviously suspicious. The GOP-friendly Drudge Report played it up, but with the sourcing so thin, major media organizations – Fox News included – gave the story the silent treatment, and on Election Day, Menendez easily defeated his Republican challenger, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, by nearly 20 points. The D.C. wouldn’t let it go, though, writing dozens of stories about the Menendez “prostitution scandal” over the next few months and skewering more established media outlets for ignoring it. Among the 66 Menendez-themed stories that the D.C. has run since Nov. 1:

And so on. There is undoubtedly more reporting to come, but Monday’s developments are already focusing attention on the D.C., which claimed in a story posted overnight that the woman in the Post story had nothing to do with its Menendez reporting, and on what has been a well-organized effort by conservative activists to go after Menendez and end his career. If the new claims are true, a key question will involve the identity of the other lawyer – the one who contacted the Dominican lawyer who hired to the two women. Is that lawyer at all connected to the anti-Menendez effort?

While there’s still a lot of murkiness to the whole story, its most salacious aspect appears to have turned dramatically in favor of Menendez, who has insisted all along that the prostitution charges are baseless.

But even if he’s fully exonerated on this front, Menendez won’t necessarily be out of the woods. That’s because federal agents raided the office of one of his top campaign donors, Soloman Melgen, in mid-January. Melgen has featured prominently in the supposed prostitution scandal, and earlier this year Menendez reimbursed him $58,000 for use of his private jet – a total that represented a significant chunk of the senator’s net worth. Major media outlets subsequently scrutinized the Menendez-Melgen relationship, with stories raising questions about whether the senator improperly used his influence to advance Melgen’s business interests.

An ethics committee inquiry has been launched and the New York Times called for Menendez to step down temporarily as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee a few weeks ago. Party leaders have stuck by Menendez and the precise scope and nature of the ethics panel’s inquiry is unknown, but the road ahead remains unpredictable. It may end up that what began with trumped-up charges ultimately leads to real trouble for Menendez.

That said, Monday’s developments have given his defense a jolt of momentum. In the court of public opinion, where Menendez has taken a hit lately, this figures to bolster his credibility. And among his fellow Democrats, it should ease concerns about the story spiraling out of control and threatening his ability to remain in office. And it introduces the possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, the media and political world won’t be talking nearly as much about Menendez – and a lot more about whoever started pushing the prostitution story in the first place.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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