The first email arrived last spring, shortly after 1 p.m. on April 9.
“My duty as a US citizen obligates me to report what I consider to be a grave violation of the most fundamental codes of conduct that a politician of my country must follow,” the message began.
The recipient of the email was Carrie Levine, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit watchdog group. The sender was someone who went by the name Peter Williams, using a Yahoo email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Williams claimed that over the past several years, he has traveled to the Dominican Republic for “personal and business” reasons. He also made some explosive claims.
“I have first hand information regarding the reiterated participation of Senator Robert Menendez in inappropriate sexual activities with young prostitutes while on vacations in the Dominican Republic,” Williams wrote about the New Jersey Democrat.
Williams went on to provide names, ages, addresses, phone numbers. He said he had photos, and videos, too. He asked for promises of discretion and safety for him and his sources who, he said, “will be willing to testify in the US.”
Likely not among the wealth of information offered by Williams: his real name. “Peter Williams” is widely assumed to have been a pseudonym, though those familiar with New Jersey politics might also hear a familiar ring in the name. The late Harrison “Pete” Williams Jr., former U.S. senator from the Garden State, once known as “senator for life,” was convicted in 1981 on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy in the Abscam scandal. He died in 2001, at the age of 81.
“At this juncture, I have known that since 2008, and more frequently during 2009 and 2010, Senator Menendez has traveled, by private jet owned by his friend and taxpayer Dr. Salomon Melgen, to the Dominican Republic where he stays at a house also owned by the doctor located in Casa de Campo,” Williams, the tipster, wrote in his first message to CREW.
Ten months later, Williams’ allegations are in the news. Sort of.
In January, someone anonymously posted Williams’ correspondence with CREW, ABC News and what appeared to be an FBI agent on a WordPress blog titled “Feds Investigation On Senator Robert Menendez.” Then, at the end of the month, the FBI raided Melgen’s Miami offices, reportedly as part of parallel investigations into potential Medicare fraud and the ophthalmologist/businessman/political donor’s relationship with Menendez. In the wake of the raid, Menendez’s office announced that the senator had written a $58,000 check to Melgen to reimburse him for two round-trip flights Menendez took on the doctor’s private jet in 2010. The senator’s office called the delay in payment an “oversight.”
While much of the information provided by Williams has yet to be corroborated, conservative news outlets pounced on Williams’ prostitution claims. The emails he sent roughly conform with a story the conservative news site The Daily Caller published in early November, just before Election Day, in which two unnamed Dominican women claimed in video interviews to have slept with Menendez for money.
Larger news outlets have taken a different tack. The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Washington Post have been among the outlets that have run stories examining the financial ties between Melgen and Menendez, while skirting the unsubstantiated prostitution angle. In an editorial Friday, The New York Times called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to remove Menendez’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee gavel “at least pending credible resolution by the Senate Ethics Committee of the swirling accusations of misconduct.”
Menendez has tried to combat both sides of the sprawling story. In an interview with CNN last Monday, Menendez denied the prostitution allegations, saying “the bottom line is all those smears are absolutely false.”
Williams, meanwhile, has gone underground. The anonymous WordPress site has apparently not been updated since Jan. 24. TPM’s emails to Peter Williams’ Yahoo account have not been returned. Other media outlets have had similar luck — with one exception. On Jan. 30, Breitbart reporter Matthew Boyle, who wrote the original story for The Daily Caller in November, reported that he’d received copies of other emails traded between Williams and the FBI, and that he also received “a note” from Williams himself.
“[S]ince de [sic] very beginning I explained to the FBI and CREW I wanted a serious investigation and not a public scandal,” Williams said. “Unfortunately, for reasons beyond my control, this investigation went public prematurely and without my consent… Now my situation is critical, and even more that of the people who trusted me.”
But other people who corresponded with Williams are now casting doubts on the reliability of his claims.
In an unusual move, CREW put all its correspondence with Williams online on Jan. 30, in unredacted form, including Williams’ email address plus the contact information and names of the women Williams said had sex with Menendez and Melgen. (The organization also posted the letter it sent to the Department of Justice and FBI on July 17, asking for an investigation of Menendez.) CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, told TPM in an interview earlier this month that her organization decided to do so because the emails had already been put online, and reporters were asking for them. (It was Sloan who mentioned the late Sen. Williams to TPM.) Sloan also said she had reservations about Williams and the information he provided.
“Over a period of time, [he] refused to ever speak with us by phone, and then refused to speak with ABC by phone, and the FBI agent,” Sloan said. “Those things make me cautious about it … But if it is a hoax, it is a very, very elaborate one.”
One particular red flag to Sloan was that Williams did not initially identify the prostitutes he was talking about as underage.
“We wouldn’t have referred it to the FBI without the underage element,” Sloan said. “If we hadn’t sent it, they wouldn’t have an FBI investigation, and then mainstream reporters, who wouldn’t just write the allegations, but would write that the FBI is investigating the allegations of sex with underage prostitutes — all that wouldn’t have happened.”
Williams first used the word “underage” (though he did refer to “young prostitutes” in his original email) in an email sent April 16, in response to an email from CREW’s Carrie Levine. In that email, Levine had said the organization did not yet have enough information to determine a course of action.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com