WASHINGTON – New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez on Friday questioned the anonymous sources behind the latest report of a federal investigation into his work and said he had provided no special help to two Ecuadorians wanted on embezzlement charges in their home country.
"A year after a false smear campaign was launched against me, once again we see anonymous sources," Menendez, a Democrat, told reporters in New Jersey. "I'd like these people to come forward but we're back to anonymous sources making ridiculous allegations."
The "smear campaign" refers to a report from late 2012 on the conservative Web site The Daily Caller, which cited an anonymous e-mailers unsubstantiated accusations about Menendez visiting prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. Those allegations did not withstand scrutiny -- some women said they had been bribed to lie and support the accusation -- though other ethical questions did emerge, were documented and remain unresolved.
Now Menendez is again facing reports about a federal inquiry. NBC's New York affiliate reported Thursday night that federal authorities are looking into his efforts to help two fugitive bankers avoid extradition back to Ecuador.
The station cited "multiple current and former U.S. officials" who were not named.
Menendez on Friday pushed back, saying he had helped a family prosecuted by a "corrupt" government and that he had not provided any extraordinary aid. He noted that the brothers entered the country in 2001 and have lived here legally ever since. A Menendez spokeswoman said the U.S. government has rejected three extradition requests and that "we don't have anything to do with that."
"My office had absolutely nothing to do with bringing these people here, giving them legal status or refusing extradition orders," Menendez said today. "Just because a corrupt Ecuadorian government declares these people to be fugitives, doesn't mean that they are truly criminals … Ecuadorians simply do not benefit from the same level of justice we experience here in the United States."
The federal investigation, NBC reported, centers on Menendez's letters on behalf of brothers William and Roberto Isaias Dassum, who led one of Ecuador's largest banks but were convicted of embezzlement after its collapse and fled to Florida.
Ecuador has sought their extradition, but it has not been granted. Menendez, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has written to the Department of Homeland Security to argue against their extradition.
Menendez sent four letters to Homeland Security in the spring of 2012 (one for each member of the family) urging the department to "fully consider" their applications for residency, said Menendez spokeswoman Patricia Enright.
Relatives of the two brothers donated more than $10,000 to Menendez's 2012 campaign, NBC reported, but Menendez said Friday his actions were not based on any donations and argued that he was helping two people who were prosecuted by a "corrupt" government.
He noted that the Isaias brothers have lived legally in the United States under both the Bush and Obama administrations.
"My office works with literally hundreds of individuals and families from New Jersey and across the country who are seeking help with the immigration process. The Isaias family made such a request. We addressed this matter in an identical process that was no different than any others," Menendez said.
"In this particular case, my office made standard inquiries on behalf of the Isaias family because we had every reason to believe, every reason to believe, that they may or have been victims of political persecution in their native country of Ecuador, including specifically the confiscation of media outlets they owned which were critical of the government," he said.
In the 1990s the Isaias brothers were executive president and executive vice president of Filanbanco, one of Ecuador's largest banks, according to a May court ruling in Miami-Dade County Court in Florida, where a judge ruled against Ecuador's attempt to collect money the country says the brothers owe. Ecuadorian officials accused the brothers of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars, and the bank was taken over by the government in 1998. Three years later, after an injection of $1.6 billion, it collapsed.
An audit showed that depositors' losses were at least $661.5 million.
Arrest warrants were issued for the Isaias brothers, but they fled to Florida where, the ruling says, where they are said to have at least $20 million worth of property.
Menendez, who said he had met at least one of the brothers, said their bank was solvent until the government "ran it into the ground" and attempted to blame the Isaiases.
Menendez said he wrote to Homeland Security before he became chairman of the Foreign Relations committee and denied that there was any connection between his actions and donations from the family. (He became chairman in early 2013).
"We never, never act on a contribution as a cause for action," he said.
Early last year Menendez came under fire when news reports revealed that he accepted free flights on a donor's private plane and later sent letters on behalf of the donor, South Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen. Those actions remain under investigation by a grand jury, according to a December report from the Miami Herald. More than a year after the FBI raided Melgen's offices, though, no charges have been brought.
Menendez wrote letters on Melgen's behalf in the doctor's dispute over Medicare billing and a port security deal in the Dominican involving Melgen's company.
After the scandal gained public attention, Menendez repaid Melgen $58,500 for the two round-trip flights on the donor's plane.