Trail of Sen. Bob Menendez investigation leads to dead end in Dominican Republic

The Miami HeraldFebruary 4, 2013 

US NEWS FBI-MENENDEZ 1 MI

FBI agents raided the West Palm Beach, Florida, office of eye doctor Salomon Melgen on Jan. 30, 2013. Melgen is suspected of providing free trips and even underage Dominican Republic prostitutes to Sen. Bob Menendez, (D-N.J.).

WALTER MICHOT — MCT/Miami Herald

— The shadowy tipster who made explosive allegations involving U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic named names. He gave descriptions of the women, and in some cases, phone numbers and addresses.

Despite those details, the women are nowhere to be found.

A week after the claims made headlines in the United States and on this Caribbean island, the alleged prostitutes have disappeared. An attorney who once represented two of the women said he hadn’t spoken to them in months, and then stopped returning phone calls himself. A two-bedroom apartment where some of the alleged liaisons took place is now vacant. Little remains here beyond hazy memories.

No concrete links have been made between Menendez and any prostitutes. Still, the allegations from the tipster, who identified himself as Peter Williams, were serious enough to launch an FBI probe. And shreds of evidence in Santo Domingo show that, at the very least, the women Williams described exist.

Take an apartment in Santo Domingo’s upscale Gazcue neighborhood that Williams said was used for sexual liaisons. In April emails to a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Williams alleged that Dr. Salomon Melgen, a friend and major campaign donor to Menendez, rented a unit for a Brazilian prostitute named Maria and a Colombian prostitute named Geraldine.

The apartment exists. When reached by phone, the landlady said that two young women named Geraldine and Maria had indeed lived there last year, and said the nationalities matched.

However, the landlady, who declined to be named, did not believe the women to be prostitutes — she said she thought they were beautiful foreign exchange students — and had never heard of Menendez or Melgen visiting the apartment. But she complained that the women had nearly destroyed the unit, even leaving the wallpaper torn up when they abandoned the apartment last year.

“They behaved very badly,” she said. The apartment has since been rented to others and is now back on the market for $1,000 a month.

The FBI is investigating the sex allegations, some of which involve minors.

Prostitution is not illegal in the Dominican Republic. The investigation is also probing trips Menendez took on the eye doctor’s private plane, and the senator’s gift disclosures. Last week, Menendez acknowledged that he had traveled to the Dominican Republic with the doctor on three occasions, and cut a check for more than $58,000 to reimburse him for two of the flights.

Separately, the agency is investigating Melgen in connection with possible Medicare fraud. Last week, FBI agents raided Melgen’s eye clinic in West Palm Beach.

Representatives for both Menendez and Melgen have denied wrongdoing.

The emails from Williams to the authorities were met with some skepticism, in part because he was unwilling to meet with investigators or talk over the phone. “Williams” — which is likely a pseudonym — said he wouldn’t speak because he was concerned with the women’s safety and did not want to become a celebrity accuser.

But there were many facts the tipster got right. He knew the addresses of Melgen’s homes in Santo Domingo and the exclusive Casa de Campo resort, where the parties allegedly took place, and the names of his bodyguards and other employees.

He identified a Russian national living in Miami named “Svetlana B” who frequently flew in Melgen’s private jet to parties in the Dominican Republic.

“This girl is one of the most regular participants in the activities the Doctor arranges for the Senator,” Williams wrote. “She has traveled with them in the jet, sailed with them in the yacht, and has repeatedly visited the Doctor’s house.”

Public records show that a woman named Svitlana Buchyk got into a minor crash while driving a Chevrolet Impala on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables in 2010. The car belonged to Melgen’s wife. Buchyk gave Melgen’s North Palm Beach address as her own.

Buchyk spoke briefly with a Miami Herald reporter by telephone Thursday, saying she had worked for Melgen in the past.

But Buchyk wouldn’t answer questions on the type of work she did, and was eager to defend Melgen — particularly when asked about stories of Melgen’s alleged sexual liaisons with prostitutes.

“He is an amazing person,” she said. “He was always with his family. There is nothing else I can say.”

Buchyk added that many women would have liked to have spent time with her former employer.

“He treated me well,” she said. “He had money. He was very generous.”

Subsequent phone calls to “Svetlana” went to voicemail.

The emails also led to some dead ends.

Williams listed a phone number for another woman, citing her by name, supposedly one of Menendez’s “favorite girls.” The number is now disconnected.

He gave another number where Maria and Geraldine, the Brazilian and Colombian, could supposedly be reached. But now that number belongs to Mileyi Bencosme, who said she got the phone about six months ago.

Bencosme, 50, lives in Santiago de los Caballeros — about two hours from Santo Domingo — and said she had never heard of the women. In the past week, she has received dozens of calls from journalists in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and other cities, asking for these women. Most of the calls were in English.

Bencosme said she’s starting to feel like a victim of phone harassment.

“This morning somebody called me again and asked who I really was,” she said on Saturday morning. “The question is, who are these women?”

Vinicio Castillo Semán, a cousin of Melgen, has another question. He said he will ask Dominican authorities to investigate who is behind the emails.

“These stories about prostitutes have been completely fabricated and it’s audacious to me that these allegations can be spread anonymously,” said Castillo Semán, who has also been accused of organizing parties with prostitutes for Menendez.

“This scandal has been created out of thin air.”

Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman, Marc Caputo and Daniel Chang contributed to this report.

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